Saline Area Schools Embraces Trans Policy

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Saline Area Schools now has a trans policy on the books. The Board of Education voted unanimously, Tuesday, to approve its Transgender and Nonbinary Students Policy with a simple change. And that is the change to the title itself. The policy to include trans inclusive operational policy and non-discrimination protections was originally presented as the Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Students Policy but was changed at the request of Trustee Jenny Miller, to remove any negative or othering, connotations in what the Board intends to be a positive and inclusive step forward.

“I am feeling so much joy. We have been trying to work with the district for a couple of years now. I actually started working within the district in 2017. What Saline Schools needs to do to get a transgender policy. The fact that we’re here four years later and have a transgender passed is just an amazing accomplishment,” Viva Rosentheld, a Saline parent who has one trans child, one non-binary child, and one CIS child, said. When asked what she would say to parents who do not support the trans policy, Rosentheld said “When it turns out to be your child, you will understand why this policy is so important. If you don’t understand it, just understand that it protects all students, not just the students who are listed in this category.”

There was a standing ovation after it passed. Saline City Councilor Kevin Camero-Sulak – who has a trans child – pumped his fist as he joined everyone else in applause.

Kevin Camero-Sulak addresses the Board of Education.

“I feel great. This is something that many of us parents have been working on for two years. … It has just been very anxious because of how long it’s been. I want these protections to be in place for other children, so they don’t have to endure what others have in the past. The fact that it was unanimous shows strong, broad support, from the School Board,” Camero-Sulak said.

Trans and non-binary students can now utilize the bathrooms that conform to their gender identity, know that their school district supports their identity. The policy also directs the district to construct more gender-neutral bathrooms in school buildings for transitioning and non-binary students. Students uncomfortable with either boys or girls changing rooms will also be accommodated with gender-neutral alternatives. While there were few voices making the arguments that these policies put students in danger, there have been countless parents showing up in person to voice those concerns, and many more emails.

“A year ago I might have been somebody who sent that email. And I might have been somebody who was questioning that [safety issue]. And I will tell you that luckily in the last year, I’ve made some friends in my life – some of them who are sitting in this room – and who have made me understand that transgender youth just want to be who they are. They want to use the bathroom that they identify with. That doesn’t make them a threat. They just want to be who they are as human being. I struggled with that personally,” Trustee Brad Gerbe said. “The fact of the matter is that I hope that this policy will help us have those conversations and have change in our lives and be honest with each other and so we can learn. I understand how they felt because I was there. I just hope we keep working at it.”

Brad Gerbe

Trans and non-binary students can also receive support when facing bullying and will now be called by their appropriate pronouns. It has been well established for years that when a trans or gender nonbinary person transitions from what they were perceived to be at birth to their real gender identity, the proper and consistent usage of the pronouns they feel comfortable with – he instead of she or they instead of she, etc. – does wonders for their mental health.

“It’s affirming,” Camero-Sulak added when asked what the passage of this policy meant for kids like his. “It might not seem like much. That is so valuable to kids. We know who we are at our age. … Most parents will support their child [with] whatever their identity is, and unfortunately, there are some parents that don’t.”

One of the more contentious issues of this debate has been over parents’ rights and student privacy. This policy gives grade school students the power to let the district know if and when they can reveal their gender identity to parents if they come out to the school district. Most parents are not violent towards their children. But study after study had concluded that trans students face an unusual risk of violence, discrimination and exclusion from their own family members – even their parents – after coming out as trans. The policy’s confidentiality in most circumstances is intended to protect children, even if that means protecting them from their parents.

“It’s abhorrent to me to think that parents would commit violence against their children for coming out. It’s abhorrent to me to think that they would kick them out of their house. It’s abhorrent to me that they would send them to conversion therapy for this,” Trustee Dennis Valenti said. “If I have to err, I have to err on protecting our children against violence and from a hostile environment. … I was grappling with this for days and all evening listening to them. If I have to err on one side or another, I have to err on protecting the children.”

The debate over whether the school district needs a specialized policy to ensure the safety and welcoming of trans and gender-nonconforming students in Saline, and to protect them from transphobic bullying, has been a bumpy road in the district. In the months that the district has been considering the measure, long policy committee and board meetings became the norm as dulling factions of parents made speech after speech in the public commentary periods either for or against the policy.

“To be honest, I never imagined that this is something that was even possible. I won’t say this is the culmination of a dream because this is something I thought would never happen. It’s a huge part of my life and a huge trauma in my life that I have worked very hard to work past. What I am really happy about is that my child, and every trans child in this community, can look forward to the chance of something I have never had the chance for,” David Howard, who is nonbinary, said.

David Howard addressing the Board.

In previous meetings, there was almost an even split of parents who were for and against the policy. Then as it got closer and closer to becoming a reality, more and more parents showed up and the faction of parents in favor of the pro-trans rights policy began to outnumber those who were either against it or had questions about it more and more. By the time the policy passed on the evening of October 12, only one parent showed up to voice their opposition to it. Another mother read a statement from a former student who says they were bullied and did not think that Saline Area Schools would be willing or able to prevent bullying and harassment.

“I am here to address to the school board, to recognize your bid to be inclusive you have been insensitive to a number of community members. You have made it such that people who have differing opinions are not welcome to attend. I think that they are not encouraged to speak out. I think that you are not welcoming,” one speaker, who identified herself as Carey, said. She repeated other parents' concerns for the potential assault for female students and their ability to athletically compete. “By adopting this policy, you are putting these girls at lower opportunities. I don’t think that’s what you intended. While you have put a lot of effort in these decisions, and some of them are appropriate – I appreciate private spaces for bathrooms – I think you’re risking” [other rights].

The fear of SAS girls being outperformed in sports was one reason against the policy. Saline will now allow trans students to compete in sports that conform with their gender identity. As was the fear of an increased risk of sexual assault and harassment voiced by multiple parents over the last few months.

“This means that our child knows they are going to face a lot of hate because it is in the schools, it's in the community, it's in the nature of our society. They are Black, they are non-binary, but they know it’s not coming from their school. Their school is a place of support, rather than a place where that hate is coming from. They know that their school does not buy into  propaganda, or just listen to loud, angry voices. They know their school follows science, best practices. It means they can be happy at school and safe,” Tiffany Alexander – Hayward’s wife, said. When asked about the perspective of parents who oppose the new policy, Alexander said:

Tiffany Alexander, addressing the Board.

When asked about the parents who opposed the policy, Alexander said: “In every group, there are people who open to change. … That is a possibility that we should never count out. However, the majority of this just comes down to hate. I’m not here to convince them of anything. I don’t want their tolerance. They don’t deserve to be in the presence of my child because they are too hate filled to appreciate them. …. If I have to convince someone of somebody else’s humanity: shame on you.”

This policy is also a reaction to a 2019 Supreme Court ruling, Bostock v. Clayton County, which ruled that “an employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law” in an opinion written by the Trump-appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch. This was combined with the current interpretation by the Department of Education that concludes that banning discrimination in the United States on the basis of sex in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 includes a ban on discrimination against LGBTQ Americans.

“I am thankful for the work of the policy committee and the members of the Saline Area School Board on this policy. The Board has taken adequate time, listened to parents, addressed many concerns, and heavily weighed the language and actions outlined in this policy,” Shannon Beeman, who represents Saline, the northern part of Milan and all six of the southwestern-most townships on the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, said in a statement to the Sun Times News after attending the meeting. “This policy is about taking children in and nurturing them no matter where they are in life, allowing children to feel safe and ready to learn. No child can succeed academically if they do not feel protected in their learning environment.”

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