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Western Pa. schools craft policies to protect transgender students

Apr. 17, 2016 – TribLive – by Elizabeth Behrman

Ira Weiss encourages his clients to be proactive when it comes to transgender students. 

His law firm represents 14 local school districts, and he is working with each of them to develop policies to support and accommodate students who were assigned one gender at birth but identify with the other. Weiss said those policies should be in place before problems arise, as they have in cities where districts have been sued for denying transgender students access to certain bathrooms or locker rooms.

“Aside from the legal consequences, which we all want to avoid, it’s a civil rights issue,” said Weiss of Weiss Burkardt Kramer. “It’s protecting individuals and giving them their rights.”

School districts across Western Pennsylvania are slowly changing their policies to better protect transgender students from discrimination and bullying. Some, such as North Hills School District, have updated non-discrimination policies to include gender identity and expression. Others, such as Southmoreland School District, will rely on solicitor’s advice if there are issues.

“It’s becoming more widely considered, and I think districts are advised to deal with it,” said Weiss, whose firm represents districts including Pittsburgh Public Schools, Sto-Rox, Belle Vernon and Baldwin-Whitehall.

Pittsburgh Public Schools last week completed a draft policy that includes everything from which bathrooms a transgender student is allowed to use to what name is included on their official school documents, said Aimee Zundel, an associate attorney with Weiss’ firm. The policy will be the topic of a workshop May 2, and the school board hopes to gather public input on the issue before voting on it later that month.

“I think more districts are going to be looking at putting them in place because the requests are there,” Zundel said about transgender policies.

Greensburg Salem Superintendent Eileen Amato said the district is discussing the idea of adding provisions for transgender students to its policy handbook. Administrators have attended educational workshops and legal presentations about the topic.

“We have talked about the issue because this is becoming more and more common,” Amato said. “We have looked at some of the issues that other districts are talking about, but we haven’t narrowed it down to exactly what we would put in our policy.”

While there’s no timeline for drafting and voting on a policy, she said, “It’s not going to linger on for a really long time. It’s really timely.”

In the Pine-Richland School District, where the issue most recently arose at a pair of school board meetings, the board and administrators have scheduled an informational meeting for Thursday. The meeting will not directly address legal issues, facility access or potential policy decisions, and no board action can be taken, but experts from Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC will provide insights from medical, social and psychological perspectives, communications director Rachel Hathhorn said. They will address frequently asked questions and misconceptions about the topic of transgender students.

Jason Landau Goodman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Youth Congress, a statewide LGBT youth organization, called the meeting an encouraging first move.

“Education absolutely has to be the first step when it comes to protecting the rights and well being of trans students,” Goodman said. “I think so much of the anger and opposition comes from people’s lack of understanding of the issue.”

Vanessa Davis, a founding member of THRIVE Southwest PA, said her organization attempts to answer districts’ questions and get them to empathize with transgender students before developing an official policy, she said. Districts can do things like adjust dress codes or incorporate discussions about gender identity in the classroom.

A lot of the group’s work acts as a prelude to the development of a formal district policy, she said.

“We’re hearing more and more from parents and students asking for support in how to help advocate for their children and themselves,” Davis said.

Cheryl Kleiman, a Pittsburgh-based staff attorney with the Education Law Center, said having policies in place helps reduce the “stigma” surrounding transgender students and makes them feel safe and included at school.

“From my perspective, restroom accessibility is only one element of the conversation we need to be having,” she said. “We must ensure that schools are safe and free from discrimination for all students.”

Staff writers Kari Andren and Vince Townley contributed.