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School board approves gender support policy

The Durham Public Schools Board of Education unanimously approved a new LGBTQIA+ and gender support policy for its students, staff, and families on Thursday, December 8. 

Lengthy discussion between board members and the public during their monthly work session resulted in the vote to provide greater support for the LGBTQ community. 

“This is an important step forward in having a named, detailed policy to offer better guidance and protections for students and staff in the LGBTQIA+ community,” said DPS Board of Education member Natalie Beyer. “The board was unanimous in our enthusiastic support as we work towards making our schools inclusive and welcoming for all,” she said.

The policy aims to eliminate gender-based segregation, stereotypes, and activities at Durham public schools. Dress codes, for instance, can no longer require students to wear different articles based on gender, gender expression or gender identity. The regulation also eliminates gender segregation in single-gender classes (like physical education), school ceremonies and pictures, extracurricular activities, and overnight field trips. 

According to the policy document, each school principal will identify at least one faculty or staff member to serve as a “support person and liaison for LGBTQ+ students.” The new governing principle also requires training for staff on a variety of LGBTQ and gender issues, such as transgender and transitioning students and staff members, names and pronouns, restroom and locker room accessibility, gender segregation, and dress codes. The district will provide periodic training concerning the policy’s new rules to all school-based administrators, Student Support Services—which includes counselors, nurses, and social workers—and appropriate district-level administrators.

“These guidelines are intended to help schools promote the educational and social integration of transgender, non-binary and gender non-conforming students and staff and ensure a safe learning environment free from discrimination and harassment,” the document states.

Parents and community members crammed the public comment portion of the recent work session. Typically, the school board allots three minutes of speaking time for each speaker. This time, so many people signed up that speakers were limited to 90 seconds each. The 41 public comments took more than 70 minutes in total, with the vast majority addressing LGBTQ policy.

Many community members and parents simply voiced  support for the new policy. Others spoke with desperation about their children. “It does not feel like I’m looking for the best fit for my child, it feels like I’m looking for the least harmful [one],” said Lorena Perez, a parent with a gender-fluid child. 

Others cited student safety, mental health, and suicide statistics in urging the board to pass  the new policy. The Human Rights Campaign found that nationally, more than 40 percent of non-binary youth have attempted suicide. LGBTQ youth who report having at least one accepting adult in their lives are 40% less likely to report attempting suicide, according to the Trevor Project. 

Hollis Goss, who has a transgender daughter enrolled at a Durham public school, said “queer-affirming policies and practices at school keep our children alive.”

“Enough is enough,” said Anne Sutkowski-Hemstreet, founder and director of Durham’s Rainbow Collective for Change. “It’s time now to prioritize the safety of LGBTQ and gender diverse children over the discomfort of a few adults.”

The new policy includes a provision on “supporting transgender or transitioning students,” which states that “it is not unusual for a child’s desire to transition to first surface at school.” The policy establishes general protocols for instances when either a student or their parents approach a school about a child’s transition. It also clarifies that “these situations must be addressed on a case-by-case basis.” 

Some community members, many of whom did not identify themselves as parents, took strong issue with the new provisions. “The public school system should not be enforcing homosexuality upon [our] children,” said Victoria Peterson. 

Another speaker, Courtney Gills, said the bill lacked clarity in places. For example, the policy suggests that, in some cases, parents may not be informed or contacted concerning their child’s transition: “The school principal or their designee should speak with the student first to ascertain concerns the student may have, what support may be needed to keep the student safe at school, and how to involve the student’s parents, if at all,” the policy reads.

Gills expressed concern about that language. “This is a very vague part of the policy. Who is deciding the maturity of that child?” she asked.

Multiple community members also said  the policy conflicted with their religious beliefs, often citing Bible verses. 

Jacob Aldridge, a parent of two DPS students, urged the board, “please do reject the hatefulness wrapped in a cross that you’ve heard from some of our community members tonight.” 

Courtney Gills took issue with Aldridge’s comment. “Hatefulness wrapped in a cross…that was hate speech, and it’s disgusting, and it’s entirely offensive to me, and it’s offensive to a lot of other people who came here today.”

However, Rhonda Lee, a parent and Episcopal priest, voiced support. “It is vitally important to me that our public schools be safe and welcoming spaces for our LGBTQIA+ students, for the sake of their holistic wellbeing—physical, emotional, mental and spiritual…Our children deserve nothing less.” 

With the passage of this LGBTQIA+ and gender support policy, the Durham Public Schools Board of Education can look ahead to January, when the focus turns to discussion about the district’s proposed redistricting plan.