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Should Jefferson County Public Schools Have a Districtwide Gender Identity Policy?

Atherton High School took a step Thursday toward becoming the first school in the Jefferson County Public School system to adopt a discrimination policy with specific protections for transgender students.But JCPS has more than 150 schools. Should it have a uniform policy for dealing with gender identity questions?Elizabeth Stith is the executive director of the Louisville Youth Group—an organization that works with LGBT youth.  She said this move should lay the ground work for a districtwide policy aimed at protecting transgender students.“This is one student in one school, but there will be other students here, and there will be other students in other schools,” she said. “Coming out as trans in high school is not exactly what you would call easy, but knowing what to expect in school would make it easier.”Stith said schools without policies that protect transgender students from discrimination during the school day fail to create an “ideal situation” for those students.“I work with a student, who is a female-to-male trans, who does not use the boy’s restrooms at his school because it is physically dangerous for him,” Stith said. “That’s sad, and the fact that the school is not particularly concerned for his personal safety in the restroom also concerns me.”Atherton High's school-based decision making council on Thursday OKed  the policy.  The move came after complaints arose that a male-bodied transgender student was using a girl’s restroom. Before the vote, the council was addressed by 18 supporters and detractors. Those opposed to the policy said they were concerned for student privacy ; others said certain religious groups would be discriminated against if they had to share facilities,  such as locker rooms, with members of the opposite sex where they might be partially clothed.But Chris Hartman, the director of the Louisville Fairness Campaign, said it's only a matter of time before the Jefferson County Board of Education addresses gender identity discrimination policies.“They know that they’ve needed to address this, it’s long overdue,” he said. Louisville usually leads Kentucky on LGBT rights issues—but when it comes to public schools, Fayette County has already taken charge, Hartman said.Fayette County Public Schools added a gender identity clause to the district's non-discrimination policy in 2012.Hartman said it is “so important” to have a uniform district wide anti-discrimination policy that protects all students.“Really, there should be one anti-discrimination law that covers the entire state instead of these piecemeal ordinances in various municipalities," said Hartman, whose organization haspushed for such laws."We would love to see the same thing in JCPS, one policy that covers everything.  Book closed, that’s it.”Jefferson County school board did not returned requests for comment made Thursday. We'll update when we hear back from them.Though the transgender population is small and gender identity issues are relatively new  to the public forum, it is “less confusing than people make it out to be," Hartman said.“At the end of the day, treating people fairly and equally is a value that almost all folks agree with and I think that if folks just take a step back and remember that, these issues become less complicated,” he said.Thomas Aberli, the principal of Atherton High School, said he wasn’t looking to be civil rights pioneer for implementing the policy, but rather an “advocate for justice and fairness.”“Our school community overwhelmingly supports the procedure I have implemented,” he said.  “I hope the awareness of something that has been brought, to something that is a local school decision brings further understanding to this among everyone.”Under the policy, transgender students must first get approval from school officials before they will be allowed to use a certain restroom, Aberli said.“We clearly have a legal precedent to say students who receive approval from the principal for being identified as transgender to allow them use facilities of their gender identity,” he said.If a school administrator doesn’t agree with a student claiming to be transgender, the student or the student’s family can file a grievance or an appeal with the school, Aberli said.Stith said requiring a student to seek permission from a school official before being able to use a certain facility should not be seen as a violation of privacy.“It’s good to have a conversation with someone at the school, mostly for a safety issue,” she said.  “And especially if it is a transition in the middle of the school year."A principal, counselor, someone needs to know."Aberli agreed."We need to know what people are requesting before we know how to accommodate them," he said.Student enrollment at Atherton for the 2013-2014 school year is just more than 1,200 students, according to JCPS data.  Nearly 200 students attended the Thursday meeting.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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