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Buffalo Public Schools approve new policy for transgender students

The Buffalo Public Schools have a new gender identity policy to dictate how transgender students are treated.

The polarizing policy allows a transgender student to use the restroom and locker room that corresponds to the student’s consistently expressed gender identity at school. Students can access the alternate restrooms as soon as their parent or legal guardian declares a gender identity other than the one listed in other records, such as medical or birth records.

The school board voted Wednesday to approve the new policy, 8-1.

The only board member voting against the measure was Carl P. Paladino, who said that by adopting the policy, the district is in violation of public lewdness law.

The district’s division of Student Support Services and the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, Planning and Community Engagement will be responsible for implementing the policy. And principals will have to develop a School Planning guide for when a transgender student asks to use a preferred name different than their legal name or to use restrooms, locker rooms or changing facilities consistent with their gender identity.

Prior to school board members voting on the document during Wednesday night’s meeting, about 10 people spoke both in favor and in opposition to the policy, including one student who recently lost a transgender friend who committed suicide because he felt helpless.

“What is the point of living your life if you’re not happy?” said Kay Emmons, repeating what her friend said to her before he committed suicide. She urged school board members to adopt the gender identity policy.

The draft document was presented to the school board last April. That was followed by a series of public meetings for parents, guardians and community members, over the summer.

The restroom portion of the policy has proved to be the most controversial.

Over the past several months, more than 100 speakers have voiced their opposition during School Board meetings and other public meetings. They said such a policy could leave other students vulnerable to predators and abuse and could make other students feel uncomfortable.

The issue revealed some unusual alliances on the School Board.

Paulette Woods – one of three newcomers who helped upset the former board majority – had been critical of the policy, questioning whether it robs the majority of students of privacy to accommodate a relative few.

That had put her on the same side of the issue as Paladino, who voiced similar concerns at a previous board meeting.

On Wednesday, Paladino said that in his view the policy is violating laws on public lewdness, claiming the policy "is promoting a child to go in front of another child of the opposite sex and show genitals."

Ultimately, Woods voted in favor of the policy Wednesday night. What changed her mind was that all students -- transgender or not -- can request private, separate areas or a single-stall restroom.

After the School Board approved the document, the audience in the packed board room cheered and applauded the decision.

The policy stems from the Obama administration’s directive that every school district in the country allow transgender students to use bathrooms and other facilities that match the gender identity they identify with – not the one they were assigned at birth.

Districts that do not comply could face legal action or have federal education funding withheld.

It is not clear, however, whether the administration’s directive will hold up in the courts, which have not definitively answered whether federal civils rights law protects transgender people.

Will Keresztes, the district’s chief of Intergovernmental Affairs, Planning and Community Engagement, commended the plan and how it was developed.

“Our partner organizations were critical to the development of this policy,” he said. “Buffalo should be proud that every student in our District is protected from discrimination in all its forms and that the community is behind us.”

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