School district continues work on transgender policy

School district administrators and board members are working on guidelines for how the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District should accommodate transgender students.

National controversy arose last year when North Carolina’s state legislature passed a bill requiring individuals to use bathrooms aligning with the gender on their birth certificates. School districts around Alaska, including the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District and the Anchorage School District, have developed formal policies, but the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has not yet adopted one.

During the school district Board of Education’s work sessions Monday, Kenai Peninsula School Activities Association board member Bill Holt said the association’s board was still actively working on a policy. The activities association, which oversees sports and extracurricular activities, is concerned about it in situations like when students need to change for athletics or participate in single-sex sports.

“There’s some concern from the KPSAA folks because there’s a pretty good feeling that it’s going to come up somehow,” said Holt, who represents the Board of Education on the activities association’s board. “… Since we don’t have a policy, we go with the Alaska School Activities Association’s policy.”

The Alaska School Activities Association has a policy related to how students can participate in contact sports, but it’s strictly based on athletic participation and defers to a school district’s individual policy, said Billy Strickland, the executive director of ASAA. If the school district doesn’t have an existing policy, the ASAA doesn’t make gender determinations of its own — it only allows students to participate in athletics according to the gender on their birth certificates, he said.

“The intent is that this is a true gender identity consistent with how the student presents themselves,” he said.

The ASAA’s policy states that it will rely on a member school’s determination “where the determination is based upon prior written and objective criteria adopted by the school.” Once established, the determination is valid for the student’s entire high school eligibility.

The school the student attends is likely to know the student best to make that determination, Strickland said. Other athletic organizations have different rules — the National Collegiate Athletic Association, for example, requires a student to be on hormonal transition therapy before participating in a same-sex sport aligning with his or her gender identity. That policy may not work for adolescents identifying as transgender, he said.

“We didn’t want to recommend something that we felt would be poor medical advice,” he said.

Holt said the board is reviewing the guidelines set out by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District as a frame they could adapt for the Kenai Peninsula. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District’s policy is intended “to foster a learning environment that is safe, and free from discrimination, harassment and bullying” and to “assist in the educational and social integration of transgender student in our schools,” according to the policy. It is similar to one sent out by the Alaska Association of School Boards in late 2015 as a basic policy for school districts to consider.

AASB’s policy deals with transgender students in general, not just in athletics. School boards don’t have to adopt it unless they choose to do so, said Bob Whicker, the director of the Consortium for Digital Learning and works on policy for AASB.

“Really, they are an independent governing body, so they can adopt whatever they want,” he said. “Our policies, when they’re sent out, they’re sent out as model policies.”

Much of how schools handle transgender students will be addressed by the incoming administration of president-elect Donald Trump and an upcoming case before the U.S. Supreme Court, G.G. v Gloucester County School Board. The Supreme Court case arose from a transgender student suing the school district for not allowing him to use the bathroom aligned with his gender identity at his high school.

Whicker said AASB’s legal team is watching the changes and may make revisions to its suggested policy as necessary.

“We’re going to see what comes out, and if indeed it needs advising, we will,” he said. “This has been very fluid. I would wager that there will be some kind of revision.”

John O’Brien, the assistant superintendent for Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, told the Board of Education during the worksession that the district is considering modifying the Mat-Su policy as necessary.

“Right now, our administrators don’t even have any guidelines,” he said.

He also said the board might want to consider reviewing its nondiscrimination policies in relation to transgender students. The district up to this point has been able to work with transgender students on an individual basis and has not had a transgender student want to participate in athletics yet, he said.

“But it’s just a matter of time before it’s going to happen, so we do need to tackle that,” he said.

Holt admonished the board to be proactive about developing a policy.

“That’s why I’m bringing it up now, because it has to be part of a longer discussion instead of just waiting till the last minute and come up with something,” he said.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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