A new policy that aims to more clearly and comprehensively protect the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming students in the Palo Alto school district received a strong endorsement from the school board on Tuesday night, as well as a peppering of questions from one board member in particular.
The proposed policy, titled "Gender Identity and Access," affirms transgender and gender non-conforming students' rights to privacy, an education free of harassment and discrimination and access to facilities and activities in the gender they identify with, among other protections that are aligned with state and federal laws.
The policy was developed over the last two years by the district's LGBTQQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning) committee a standing group of administrators, staff, teachers, parents, students and representatives from local community organizations and came to the full board for discussion for the first time on Tuesday night.
Board Vice President Heidi Emberling introduced the policy with sobering statistics about the experience of transgender and gender non-conforming students at school. The National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that those who expressed a transgender identity or gender non-conformity while in grades K-12 reported rates of harassment at 78 percent, physical assault at 35 percent, sexual violence at 12 percent and harassment so severe it led 15 percent of respondents to leave school while in K-12 or higher education.
The LGBTQQ committee "made this a very clear document to guide our school sites as they conform legally and also ethically to provide safe and welcoming environments for all students," said Emberling, who also chairs the board review policy committee (BPRC), which vetted the policy over the course of two meetings this school year. The draft policy has also been reviewed by district attorney Dora Dome, who has helped other school districts draft similar policies, staff said Tuesday.
The LGBTQQ committee's work on the policy was guided by state and federal laws as well as existing gender-identity policies in place at several California school districts, including Berkeley Unified and Culver City Unified.
California Education Code states that "all pupils have the right to participate fully in the educational process, free from discrimination and harassment" and provides that "no person shall be subject to discrimination on the basis of gender in any program or activity conducted by an educational institution that receives or benefits from state financial assistance."
Gender, under state education code, includes a person's gender identity and gender-related appearance and behavior whether or not stereotypically associated with the person's assigned sex at birth.
In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) released a guidance document that explicitly recognizes that federal civil-rights law Title IX protects transgender and gender non-conforming students from discrimination, noting that LGBTQQ youth reported higher rates of sexual harassment and sexual violence than their peers.
"Guided by these laws and sample policies, the LGBTQQ committee took special care to incorporate the experiences of district personnel, teachers, administrators, families and students to reflect our values as a district," LGBTQQ committee member Jennifer DiBrienza told the board. "Transgender and gender non-conforming students are enrolled in Palo Alto Unified at every level: elementary, middle and high school. And the language recommended is gender neutral, inclusive of nonbinary and intersex identities, and provides deeper context and guidance for reducing stigmatization and ensuring the integration of transgender and gender non-conforming students in educational programs and activities."
The district received 56 letters from current and former district parents, teachers, staff and community members urging the board to adopt the policy.
"In addition to the regular stress of trying to do well in school, and navigate their social environment, many students, one of mine included, have to come to terms with what they feel like on the inside, which may not be reflected in what they look like on the outside," one parent wrote. "I knew very little about trans issues before our daughter was born, but I have tried to educate myself, and put myself in her shoes, and I have seen that it can be terribly difficult when, for instance, a teacher is not understanding, wittingly or unwittingly.
"When the support breaks down, life gets quite difficult, quite quickly," the parent wrote.
Kristin Meier, a district parent of a boy who does not question his gender identity but whose favorite color is pink, told the board Tuesday that the policy is critical to creating a safe and welcoming environment at school for all students.
"When you have a boy who wears his favorite color to school and it's pink, that comes with a fair share of questions and teasing and for some children, harassment," she said. "I am grateful every day that my son has been surrounded by supportive adults who won't tolerate it.
"I worry, though, about what happens after next year when he's at middle school and I worry even more about kids for whom living how they truly are involves much more than a choice to rock his favorite pink pants to school on Monday. It is tough, and these brave young people deserve to know that their school district and our community support them and their civil rights."
Board member Camille Townsend raised several questions about the policy, including asking Director of Student Services and LGBTQQ committee chair Brenda Carrillo if she had received any complaints or concerns about the proposed policy from the community to which Carrillo responded no.
Townsend also questioned policy stipulations around protecting students' privacy their "right to decide when, with whom, and how much highly personal information to share about oneself to others," including information related to their gender identity.
Teachers or staff might encounter a situation where a transgender student is not "out" to their parents or not out in certain settings, such as with other teachers or a sports team. Under the policy, teachers and staff cannot disclose a student's gender identity to others, including parents, unless they are legally required to, authorized by the student or there is a specific and compelling "need to know" in order to protect the student.
"Is there fear here about reaching out to parents?" Townsend asked.
"In some cases, parents are very supportive," Carrillo responded, "and in those cases, students are open with their parents ... but in some cases, parents may not be as supportive and in those cases it's really not our place as school officials to share that information if it could in fact cause more harm if the parents found out."
Townsend also asked about the policy's proposed process for changing transgender students' names on their transcripts after graduation (if, for example, they change their name after leaving high school); making sure not to separate students based on gender in school activities, such as breaking off into teams in physical education class; and what training exists to provide clarity on the policy for teachers and staff.
Parents of transgender students in the district and LGBTQQ committee members have been pushing for more systematic and intentional training across all levels in the district.
New hires currently receive about four hours of LGBTQQ-specific training. Other sporadic trainings and consultations with LGBTQQ community groups have been done throughout the district as specific issues with students arose.
The LGBTQQ committee is also drafting a guidance memo that would be disseminated with the new policy, if adopted.
"I think training is the next major endeavor for us, to make sure this policy is actually well understood so it can be well implemented," Carrillo said.
Board President Melissa Baten Caswell, who said she "completely support(s) the intent of the policy," asked that attorney Dome re-review language in the policy around addressing discrimination, harassment or bullying that occurs off-campus, including through potential "discipline of the alleged harasser."
Caswell asked where the district's legal rights end in terms of, for example, addressing a parent with problematic behavior at home.
"This is not a disciplinary regulation," board member and BPRC member Ken Dauber said. "It's a regulation intended to protect students against discrimination and harassment, not by subjecting the harasser necessarily to discipline but by saying that the school has an obligation to address behavior that has an effect on a students' educational program that is discriminatory, whether or not it occurs at school."
The proposed policy will return to the board for action at its next meeting on Dec. 8.