Transgender student policy at forefront of Decatur schools’ battle

The Decatur Board of Education met Tuesday to discuss school district policies related to gender identity and transgender students.

The Decatur Board of Education met Tuesday to discuss school district policies related to gender identity and transgender students.

The Decatur Board of Education pledged Tuesday to gather more public input about how it treats transgender students after some parents raised concerns about administrative guidelines that allow students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity, among other practices.

Board chair Annie Caiola said the board supports instructions issued by Superintendent David Dude in 2016 but wants to address privacy concerns.

“The board is committed to ensuring that all students feel safe, supported and valued,” she said, adding that it will review district policy to consider “potential changes” that further that goal.

The board did not set a firm timeline for the work, but it is expected to take several months.

Officials signaled they aren’t planning to roll back protections provided to transgender students but do want to have a public discussion.

Board member Lewis Jones said the board owes it to the community to listen and “see if there are some concerns that can be addressed through appropriate measures.”

But he expects the board will adopt a policy that is “largely supportive or entirely supportive of the current practices that have developed through the instructions to staff.”

Vernadette Broyles, a Norcross attorney who represents several parents who take issue with the superintendent’s instructions, said she views the directive as illegal. She said they violate the “constitutionally protected right to bodily privacy of the students” and threaten parents’ rights “to direct the training and the exposure of their children’s bodies to members of the opposite sex,” among other legal problems she’s raised with the rules.

She criticized the lack of public input before the superintendent issued the instructions to staff.  After Tuesday’s meeting, she said it’s not clear what the board intends to do.

“...[T]hey’re saying that they’re supporting their superintendent, but at the same time out the other side of the mouth they’re saying that we’re going to dialogue on this policy,” she said.

A standing-room only crowd of about 200 people gathered Tuesday for the meeting that featured about three hours of comment from dozens of parents, students, and others.

Many in the audience pinned buttons saying “protect trans kids” or “ally” to their shirts. Some critical of the superintendent’s instructions wore large yellow stickers that read “Protect privacy, safety, dignity, fairness for all our students.”

In February, the Trump administration rescinded Obama-era guidelines that required schools to treat students "consistent with the student's gender identity." The Obama administration had advised schools that transgender students must be allowed to participate in the activities and use the facilities that match their gender identity regardless of the sex marked on the student's birth certificate.

Dude, in a blog post written after the federal change, said the district would continue to adhere to its existing policy regarding transgender students.

He also reiterated instructions he gave to staff in 2016 that stated transgender students should be allowed to use the restroom and locker room that matches their gender identity and try out for the sports teams based on that gender. He also told employees to use the pronoun that students use.

Audrey Long, the mother of a transgender boy who is a high school junior, praised the superintendent for supporting transgender students.

“We need to make school, of all places, a place of safety where they can just be their true selves and focus on learning,” she said.

An online petition circulated by critics states that the district's stance upends student privacy, equal opportunities in sports, and parental decision-making.

The petition currently has 129 supporters. About a third of those are from Decatur, according to Gena Major, one of the first parents to bring concerns to the board.

“The petition was created to give people a voice in collectively asking that the board be transparent and considerate of protecting the privacy and safety and dignity of all students,” she said Tuesday. “This is in no way a statement on anti-transgender students at all.”

The petition points to modesty and religious concerns when it comes to who uses which bathroom.

It also states that it is unfair to allow a transgender student who identifies as female to participate on girls’ sports teams because “males have very real biological differences which give them a competitive advantage over females.”

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