‘A traumatic and fatal conclusion’: Kansas school district debates potential transgender policy

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Gardner Edgerton District does not know how many transgender students policy would affect

TOPEKA — Debate over a potential policy covering transgender students exposed a school district’s ideological rifts on Monday night, complete with two legal letters and details from anonymous teachers.

Parents, students and board members in the Gardner Edgerton School District have wrangled over the policy since July, with many concerned it would hurt transgender students. The district has approximately 6,000 enrolled, but it’s unclear how many transgender students are included in that number. 

“I am fearful that we will lead to a possible traumatic and fatal conclusion,” said Jeffrey Cramer, a teacher at Gardner Edgerton High School.

Ben Boothe, spokesman for the district, said it doesn’t track the number of transgender students and doesn’t know how many would be affected by a policy. In the past three years, there have been only two documented incidents in the district of students not using bathrooms that correspond with their assigned genders.

The original policy would have required students and staff to use pronouns from their original birth certificate, with changing rooms and restrooms designated solely for those assigned to the corresponding gender at birth. Students violating the policy would have been disciplined, and parents who knew of policy violations could sue the district.  

Students and staff in the district say the district has a history of LGBTQ discrimination.

Cramer said four students at the school had died in the seven years since he began teaching. Cramer believes the deaths are related to treatment of LGBTQ students in the district. 

“I don’t say this to push an agenda or bring up past injuries or even persuade the board that they could’ve been avoided,” Cramer said. “I say this carefully, but honestly, as a warning. The board passes the proposed guidelines towards trans students within our school district without serious thought or consideration towards the consequences.”

Jeff Lady, another speaker at the meeting, said the policy was just the latest example of discrimination, citing his experiences as the Gardner Edgerton High School’s first Gay Straight Alliance sponsor.

Lady said the GSA  planned a visit from U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, the first openly LGBTQ Kansan elected to Congress. After getting approval from the principal, the visit was canceled by the district with no explanation. When a GSA member wanted to speak to board members about the cancellation, Lady said he was told to make sure the student didn’t talk about her concerns. 

“I moved on,” Lady said. “I walked away from what I knew this district was regularly doing to a group of young people who I fought hard for, who are part of my community and part of my shared lived experience. I regret that. But this board’s proposed policy changes things. The actions of this district demonstrate a clear pattern of discrimination against LGBTQ students.”

Carter Robinson, former Gardner Edgerton student, at their high school graduation. Robinson believes the transgender policy will hurt students in the district. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector by Carter Robinson)

Former student Carter Robinson said their time in the district was colored by transphobia and intolerance, in an interview before the BOE meeting. As a nonbinary transgender person, Robinson had a difficult time growing up in the Gardner Edgerton district. They remembered one incident where a trans student was bullied in front of them.

“I was younger and I was scared, and so I didn’t stand up for him and I really wish I had, but I think about it all the time,” Robinson said. “And that was one of the defining moments for me where I noticed that Gardner specifically, there is a big problem with LGBTQ and intolerance.” 

Robinson said the new policy would hurt students like them, who were just trying to have a safe and normal high school experience. 

“It’s a war on gay kids,” Robinson said. 

Other teachers agreed with the policy. At the meeting, one speaker read a letter from a teacher who wished to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation. The teacher said that parents needed to be made aware of any changes with student pronouns and preferred names, saying that they had a situation with a student who wanted to change their name and pronouns and were not allowed to notify the student’s parents. 

“I requested to contact the parents first,” the letter read. “I was told by my administration to affirm the students preferred gender and was told not to tell the parents. I ask the parents out there listening, ‘Was this your child?’”

The district’s original policy was condemned by The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas in anticipation of a Board of Education meeting vote on the issue. In a Sept. 8 letter sent to school district superintendent Brian Huff by Kansas ACLU legal fellow D.C. Hiegert, the ACLU outlined various concerns. 

The ACLU said the proposed policy potentially violated federal antidiscrimination law and students’ constitutional equal protection rights, as well as federal and constitutional privacy laws. 

After looking at other district’s policies and obtaining legal advice, a revised policy was sent out ahead of Monday night’s meeting. Changes included developing individual plans to address transgender student needs, more accommodations in regard to private changing and restroom spaces, and a clause that students could be addressed by their preferred name and pronouns if the student and the student’s guardians request it.

Hiegert said the revised policy is still extremely damaging to transgender students and sent a second letter to Huff detailing legal and ethical issues the ACLU had with the policy. 

“We were glad to see some of the most egregious aspects of the policy were removed,” Hiegert said in a written statement to the Kansas Reflector. “However, the revised policy still discriminates against transgender students and decreases their safety in USD 231 schools. The district is not providing a safe and dignified environment for all its students when it introduces policies that deny trans students the right to be themselves.”

Liz Hamor, LGBTQ activist and co-founder of GLSEN Kansas, said she believed the policy was a reaction to increased expression of identity among LGBTQ students, but she was optimistic about increased pushback by civil rights groups about this type of policy. 

“I think that what we’re seeing is the backlash to students being their authentic selves more and more, as trans students and trans adults are more visible in school and in society,” Hamor said. “And so I do think we’re going to continue to continue to see that happening. But at the same time, we’re seeing more organizations and agencies like ACLU Kansas, who just hired D.C. Hiegert to specifically focus on LGBTQ rights.” 

The ACLU will continue to follow the situation and will take action if a discriminatory policy is adopted, Hiegert said. It is unclear when, if ever, the school board will vote on the policy.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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