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NLS, Willmar schools respond to new federal transgender guidelines

NEW LONDON -- Just four days after the New London-Spicer School Board voted to postpone action on a proposed transgender inclusion policy that had generated strong emotional community responses, all public schools across the country were informed...

New London-Spicer School Board
Members of the New London-Spicer School Board prepare for a listening session on its proposed transgender policy Monday evening in New London. The school board tabled its transgender inclusion policy Monday. (CAROLYN LANGE | TRIBUNE)
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NEW LONDON - Just four days after the New London-Spicer School Board voted to postpone action on a proposed transgender inclusion policy that had generated strong emotional community responses, all public schools across the country were informed Friday they cannot discriminate against students based on their gender identity. Defying the guidelines - which addresses students using bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity - could mean the loss of federal Title IX funds. After reviewing an email he received from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights early Friday morning, NLS Superintendent Paul Carlson said the directive provides "a lot of support for what we were trying to do" with the local policy. He said many of the guidelines in the federal interpretation are addressed in the proposed NLS policy. Carlson said, however, the proposed NLS policy requires a doctor's documentation for a transgender student, which is prohibited in the federal interpretation of the Title IX law. Given that provision, Carlson said it was perhaps a "good thing" the NLS policy was postponed until "everything gets fleshed out." Carlson said some may question the federal department's interpretation of the law, but he said schools "listen to the U.S. Department of Education," especially when it issues an "implicit threat" about losing vital federal funds. Willmar Superintendent Jeff Holm said late Friday morning he had not had time to review the U.S. Department of Education information yet. "We will have to school ourselves on what it tells us we need to be doing," Holm said. The Willmar School District will not ignore the order, he said. "We take them at their word that we would risk federal funds, and that's a pretty substantial sum of money for us." Holm said he hoped that the state would offer guidance for school districts and assistance developing proposals.
In a news release, Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius said the federal guidelines will help school districts provide a learning environment that's free from discrimination based on sex. "I applaud the guidance from the U.S. Department of Education that clarifies what we've believed all along - that gender identity is protected under Title IX, and that all students have a right to attend a school that is safe and discrimination-free," Cassellius said. In 2013 the state replaced "one of the weakest anti-bullying laws in the nation with the Safe and Supportive Schools Act," she said, adding that the School Safety Technical Assistance Center at the Minnesota Department of Education works with districts to provide support and assistance to make student safety a "top priority." Representatives from that center presented a teacher inservice to NLS staff in February on transgender issues. NLS has been the only school district in the area to tackle a transgender inclusion policy. However, Carlson has said he knows other schools in the region have made accommodations for transgender students without adopting a policy. In response to student needs, NLS established gender-neutral bathrooms in school buildings this school year and the school board had been reviewing and rewriting a transgender inclusion policy for about two months. The community weighed in heavily on the issue during two meetings where people spoke passionately in opposition and in support of a policy. At a meeting Monday, several people told the board the district would be sued if the policy was approved. Others warned that-because of the high risk of suicide for transgender youth-kids' lives could be at stake if the policy was not approved. The board voted 5-2 Monday to postpone action on the policy until the Minnesota School Boards Association develops a model transgender policy for the district to follow. Carlson said the board will stick with that decision, but hoped the interpretation of the Title IX law by the U.S. Department of Education will provide the "guidance the (association) needs to develop that model policy." Staff writer Linda Vanderwerf contributed to this report.   RELATED CONTENT U.S. Departments of Education's transgender policy letter to schools Obama admin to issue decree on transgender access to school restrooms New London-Spicer School Board tables transgender inclusion policyNEW LONDON - Just four days after the New London-Spicer School Board voted to postpone action on a proposed transgender inclusion policy that had generated strong emotional community responses, all public schools across the country were informed Friday they cannot discriminate against students based on their gender identity.Defying the guidelines - which addresses students using bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity - could mean the loss of federal Title IX funds.After reviewing an email he received from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights early Friday morning, NLS Superintendent Paul Carlson said the directive provides "a lot of support for what we were trying to do" with the local policy.He said many of the guidelines in the federal interpretation are addressed in the proposed NLS policy.Carlson said, however, the proposed NLS policy requires a doctor's documentation for a transgender student, which is prohibited in the federal interpretation of the Title IX law.Given that provision, Carlson said it was perhaps a "good thing" the NLS policy was postponed until "everything gets fleshed out."Carlson said some may question the federal department's interpretation of the law, but he said schools "listen to the U.S. Department of Education," especially when it issues an "implicit threat" about losing vital federal funds.Willmar Superintendent Jeff Holm said late Friday morning he had not had time to review the U.S. Department of Education information yet."We will have to school ourselves on what it tells us we need to be doing," Holm said.The Willmar School District will not ignore the order, he said. "We take them at their word that we would risk federal funds, and that's a pretty substantial sum of money for us."Holm said he hoped that the state would offer guidance for school districts and assistance developing proposals.
In a news release, Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius said the federal guidelines will help school districts provide a learning environment that's free from discrimination based on sex."I applaud the guidance from the U.S. Department of Education that clarifies what we've believed all along - that gender identity is protected under Title IX, and that all students have a right to attend a school that is safe and discrimination-free," Cassellius said.In 2013 the state replaced "one of the weakest anti-bullying laws in the nation with the Safe and Supportive Schools Act," she said, adding that the School Safety Technical Assistance Center at the Minnesota Department of Education works with districts to provide support and assistance to make student safety a "top priority."Representatives from that center presented a teacher inservice to NLS staff in February on transgender issues.NLS has been the only school district in the area to tackle a transgender inclusion policy.However, Carlson has said he knows other schools in the region have made accommodations for transgender students without adopting a policy.In response to student needs, NLS established gender-neutral bathrooms in school buildings this school year and the school board had been reviewing and rewriting a transgender inclusion policy for about two months.The community weighed in heavily on the issue during two meetings where people spoke passionately in opposition and in support of a policy.At a meeting Monday, several people told the board the district would be sued if the policy was approved.Others warned that-because of the high risk of suicide for transgender youth-kids' lives could be at stake if the policy was not approved.The board voted 5-2 Monday to postpone action on the policy until the Minnesota School Boards Association develops a model transgender policy for the district to follow.Carlson said the board will stick with that decision, but hoped the interpretation of the Title IX law by the U.S. Department of Education will provide the "guidance the (association) needs to develop that model policy."Staff writer Linda Vanderwerf contributed to this report. RELATED CONTENTU.S. Departments of Education's transgender policy letter to schoolsObama admin to issue decree on transgender access to school restroomsNew London-Spicer School Board tables transgender inclusion policy

Related Topics: EDUCATIONSPICER
Carolyn Lange is a features writer at the West Central Tribune. She can be reached at clange@wctrib.com or 320-894-9750
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