When the Hamburg School District on Tuesday adopted a new policy allowing transgender students access to restrooms and locker rooms for the gender that they identify with, it very well may have been the first district in Erie County to do so.
But it may not be the last, as other area districts also are trying to determine how to deal with the sensitive topic that comes from a state initiative.
Lancaster earlier this week tabled action on its proposed policy, after an hour or more of strong public comment.
The Clarence school district is talking about a policy. So are Lewiston-Porter and Starpoint districts in Niagara County. And in LeRoy, a backlash occurred in November after a Christian advocacy group lobbied the district to stop letting a transgender student use the boys’ locker rooms and restrooms, saying it violated other students’ privacy.
Although not mandated in New York State, recommendations are rooted in a directive that education leaders issued in July. The policy grew out of the state’s Dignity for All Students Act of 2012, which requires schools to protect students from discrimination based on gender, including gender identity and gender expression. Also playing into the new policies is a 1972 federal law barring discrimination in any educational program that receives federal funding.
It was not a tough sell in Hamburg. The board held no public comment or board debate, and the policy, which also applies to gender nonconforming students, passed quickly and unanimously.
“I think we wanted to get out in front of it and get it done. We didn’t really see it as that big of a deal, other than memorializiing what we’re already doing,” said Thomas F. Flynn, Hamburg’s School Board president. “I brought it up to a vote, and everyone voted. I guess everyone understood the background of it. Our point wasn’t to try to make a big deal about it and grandstand on it. It’s just another policy that we passed.”
The issue is actually an old one for the Hamburg district, where transgendered students have attended school for more than a decade.
“We’ve had transgendered students in the district since 2001,” Superintendent Michael Cornell said, “and we’ve had on the average since then, of three to five students per year who were ‘out’ as being transgendered.”
Nonetheless, the growing debate in the school communities is so great that Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services is sponsoring a workshop Friday for school personnel focusing on student gender identity and transgender youth.
“There are so many aspects to this issue,” said Lynn M. Fusco, Erie 1 BOCES district superintendent. “Quite frankly, I believe the goal is to have all students feel comfortable at school. That’s really what we are hoping to achieve. It can be very challenging, but the goal is always to have all children feel comfortable in their educational environment.”
“We are working to help build understanding and support for districts as they move forward with this compliance,” Fusco added.
While the Hamburg policy passed smoothly, not so in Lancaster, where it sparked a passionate debate.
“The policy (would be) tailored for a few students and too bad for the 6,000 other students,” Lancaster resident David Young told the board. “Privacy and safety should reflect for all students.”
Young and others suggested Lancaster consider offering the nurse’s office as an option.
Gloria Chaves urged the Lancaster board not to adopt the transgender policy.
“Do what is right and good for our kids,” she said. “Providing alternate dressing areas is fine, but to allow the mixing of that is going too far. I am asking you to have the strength to recognize what is good for all students. … There is no law requiring this policy. There are threats, intimidation. I know you’re concerned about lawsuits and the loss of funding, but standing for what is right is more important than money. Couldn’t we be the district that leads the way of saying ‘no’ to the overreach?”
In Hamburg, Cornell said he wouldn’t be surprised if people within the community object to the new transgender policy.
“But our obligation is to do the right things for students, and legally, to protect transgendered students from discrimination. It’s the right thing to do,” he said.
Flynn said Hamburg has long given students the option of using a more private area within the school, if they wish, such as a nurse’s or coach’s office.
“We didn’t really have a lot of discussion on it. As a board, we were pretty much on the same line on it,” he said.