Updated 12:12 a.m. May 10:
NEW LONDON - On a 5-2 vote Monday, as a crowd of more than 200 people watched, the New London-Spicer School Board tabled a proposed transgender inclusion policy.
The vote was taken after the board listened for nearly four hours to parents, grandparents and students who spoke both in support and in opposition to the policy.
During public comments the board was warned several times that if the transgender policy was approved, there would be a lawsuit filed by parents who opposed it and there would be people ready to run for their seats on the board. There were quotes from the Bible, criticisms leveled at board members and administrators, as well as tears from a man who said there would be “hell to pay” if the policy passed and anything happened to his granddaughters.
There were also comments from a woman who said transgender rights are the “civil rights battle of our time,” a student who said he was disgusted with the “lynch mob” atmosphere of adults he was supposed to respect and a local doctor who feared that the transgender youth in his exam room who didn’t want to be “brutalized again” would take the path of suicide, which statistics show many transgender youth often take.
Frank Gustafson, a NLS senior, asked the board to “look deep down into your hearts and do what’s right” and pass the transgender policy.
The vote to table to policy didn’t necessarily make either side happy.
“At least they did not vote to approve it,” said Gary Swenson, spokesperson for a group called NL-S Safe, which started a petition drive to oppose the policy.
The board said they wanted to wait until the Minnesota School Board Association had a model policy for the district to follow.
Typically the NLS school board follows the recommendations of the MSBA on policy issues.
But when it comes to a transgender policy the MSBA has been “conspicuously quiet,” said Boardmember Dan DeGeest. “That raised a red flag for me.”
DeGeest, who made the motion to table the policy, said he was not saying that he opposes the policy but said “tonight’s not the right time” to vote to either approve or reject it.
“I”m 100 percent behind this policy,” said Board member Renee Nolting, adding that she is “shocked” by the community response and worried about people suing the district.
Nolting agreed the board needed the backing of MSBA before taking up the policy again. “And we will go down this road,” she said.
Board member Holli Cogelow-Ruter said she supports the policy but wanted the guidance from a model policy.
Besides two public meetings and hours of testimony, the board and administration has taken countless hours of phone calls and numerous emails.
Cogelow-Ruter said she got five emails on the topic while at the meeting. “We’re a strong board even though we’ve taken our lickins,” she said.
Cogelow-Ruter praised Carlson, who quietly took the criticism of several people who stood at the microphone Monday. “I don’t how you do it, but you’re doing a great job,” she said.
The board has been reviewing and rewriting the transgender policy for at least months, after getting a request from school staff who were looking for direction on how to address transgender students.
In their motion, the board also directed school administration and staff to provide “appropriate accommodations on a case-by-case basis.”
In a direct appeal to transgender students, Chairman Robert Moller said he didn’t want them to “feel like we’ve abandoned you.”
The school had made accommodations for bathrooms before the board started talking about a policy and Superintendent Paul Carlson said the administration will continue to work with families and students to make any additional accommodations in facilities.
Board member David Kilpatrick said without having a policy the district will lose safeguards for students. By tabling the issue, Kilpatrick said this means the district will have to repeat the process of negative community comments and “scare tactics” again.
He said the MSBA isn’t working on a policy and the board isn’t providing the leadership it should on this issue by tabling it and “kicking the can down the road.”
Moller said it’s important to be a leader but sometimes that calls for listening instead of taking action “so fast and so quickly.”
Board members who voted to table the policy included: Robert Moller, Holli Cogelow-Ruter, Dan DeGeest, Renee Nolting and Naomi Johnson.
Board members David Kilpatrick and Cherrish Holland voted no.