ST. PAUL — When students return to classes this fall. Alison Yocom hopes more of them will feel as comfortable in school as her son George does at Avalon charter school in St. Paul.
George is a transgender student, and thanks to Avalon’s inclusive policies he and other students are able to use the bathroom that fits their gender identity.
“It has been uneventful,” said Yocom, who is a leader of Transforming Families Minnesota, an advocacy group for transgender people. But she cautioned that not every transgender student in Minnesota is treated that way.
“Kids are coming out as transgender and schools are clueless as to how to help them,” Yocom said, adding that it can be especially tough for students in small, rural schools.
That’s why Yocom supports a new “tool kit” approved July 19 by Minnesota’s School Safety Technical Assistance Council. The 11-page document is designed to help schools provide safety and support for transgender and gender-nonconforming students.
But the new guidelines have upset parents including Emily Zinos, a St. Paul mother of five, who pulled her children out of Nova Classical Academy charter school in 2016 after what she described as “transgender activists” pushed the school’s leaders to implement policies she believes violated students’ privacy.
“I’m disappointed with the decision,” Zinos said of the adoption of the state tool kit. “It seems to me like a top-down approach to an issue that should be dealt with at the local level.”
The new guidelines call for educators to allow transgender and gender-nonconforming students to use bathrooms and other facilities that match their gender identity. It says teachers and classmates should refer to students by their preferred name and pronouns and should update school records to fit a student’s gender identity.
The tool kit suggests students who are uncomfortable using bathrooms and other facilities with a transgender student be given the opportunity to use a private, single-person restroom.
“All kids deserve to feel safe at school,” Yocom said “It is a myth that a child who is transgender using a bathroom with a child that is not transgender is harmful. What there is a problem with is transgender kids getting bullied when they use a bathroom that doesn’t correspond with their gender identity.”
Court challenges likely
But Zinos and other opponents of the new recommendations say the state is asking local school leaders to violate students’ privacy and parents’ rights. They oppose allowing students of a different anatomical sex to use facilities that don’t match their gender at birth.
“The recommendations in the tool kit really fly in the face of super-strong precedent when it comes to privacy rights,” said Stephani Liesmaki, communications director for the Minnesota Family Council, a conservative advocacy group that rallied members to voice their opposition to the tool kit ahead of its July 19 approval.
Liesmaki and Zinos say school officials should be hesitant to adopt the state recommendations and should expect parents to challenge them in court. At least one Minnesota school district was sued for allowing a transgender student to use facilities that matched their gender identity.
“This is a constant debate we are having in our society,” said Zinos, who added that she would continue to speak up against the policies even though her children now attend a private school. “I can’t imagine schools will pass a gender-inclusion policy and be done with it.”
Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association, said the association’s members see the guidelines as a good starting point for districts to begin crafting local policies. He added that school officials understand whatever policies they approve could be challenged in court.
“The unsettled legal landscape right now has been a challenge,” Schneidawind said. “But we have a responsibility to protect these students from bullying and harassment.”
The discussion in Minnesota reflects debates nationwide about the rights of people who are transgender and gender-nonconforming.
In 2016, the U.S. Department of Education under President Obama provided guidance to school leaders for ensuring transgender students felt safe and welcome in school. That included provisions similar to Minnesota’s new tool kit about which bathrooms and locker rooms students can use.
Earlier this year, President Trump’s administration rescinded that directive, signaling that decisions should be decided at state and local levels. The decision was met with outrage from the transgender community.
In Minnesota it was denounced by Gov. Mark Dayton and Brenda Cassellius, state education commissioner. Cassellius co-chairs the school safety council, which was created to help schools prevent bullying and other harmful behaviors.
“Transgender and gender-nonconforming students face harassment, bullying and feel unsafe at alarmingly high rates,” Cassellius said after the new guidelines were approved. “We need to continue working together to make sure all students are able to thrive in the classroom, and this tool kit helps us move closer toward that goal.”