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School districts provided guidelines for fair treatment of transgender students

ODE warns the guidelines are not legal advice, but cautions against ignoring them

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - A guideline document was sent to Oregon school districts last week outlining how districts should help transgender students. Suggestions in the document included allowing students to use the restroom of their  preference and choose which sports teams they prefer to play on.A group that represents school boards across Oregon praised the release last week of new state guidelines for how schools treat transgender students.

The document, which suggests schools allow transgender students to choose the names and bathrooms of their preference and select the intramural sports teams on which they play, could prove to be controversial in some districts. However, the Oregon School Boards Association said of the May 5 release that it provided crucial guidance to school officials who are increasingly raising questions about how to handle the situations.

“(The questions are) coming from everywhere,” said Spencer Lewis, member services attorney and policy specialist at Oregon School Boards Association. “We’ve had big districts, we’ve had small districts, we’ve had Eastern Oregon districts ... I know Portland has had (transgender student) procedures in place for several years, but that doesn’t mean the communities around Portland aren’t asking questions as well.”

Lewis, who was involved in developing the new state guidelines, said “there’s definitely some value in (Oregon Department of Education) giving a foundation to districts saying, ‘Here’s the law that’s out there, here are some paths you can take to avoid litigation, frankly.’”

The Oregon School Boards Association has previously discouraged districts from adopting local policies on transgender students, and instead encouraged the districts to make sure their non-discrimination policies are up-to-date and comply with state law on protections for transgender and gender non-conforming students.

Although the Oregon Department of Education guidelines are new, they largely reflect existing laws and legal precedents, according to Lewis and the Oregon Department of Education.

The Scappoose and St. Helens school districts do not have local policies in place to address issues transgender students may face, other than standard anti-discrimination policies.

Scappoose Superintendent Stephen Jupe said the district handles safety concerns or other issues that arise for transgender students on an individual basis. He added that the district does not currently have plans to add any additional policies, until and unless the Oregon School Boards Association recommends adding specific guidelines.

“We are going to have to treat people with respect and equity, and all these things we try to do anyway with anybody,” Jupe said.

St. Helens Superintendent Scot Stockwell said he was still reviewing the guidelines as of press time Thursday, and did not have an immediate comment on them.

Under state law, it is illegal to discriminate against students at public schools that receive state funding, including based on their gender identification, according to the Oregon Department of Education guidelines. It is also illegal for programs that receive federal funding to discriminate against people on the basis of sex, and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has determined federal law protects transgender and non-gender conforming students.

The Oregon Department of Education suggested strategies for districts to protect students’ gender identifies in school records, to make sure teachers and administrators refer to a student by his or her preferred name and pronoun to avoid outing the student. “As with most other issues involved with creating a safe and supportive environment for transgender students, the best course is to engage the student, and possibly the parents, with respect to name and pronoun use,” the department wrote in the document.

The Oregon Department of Education warned the guidelines are not legal advice, but since they are based on anti-discrimination laws and precedents, schools could risk losing funding or going to court if they ignore them.

“It would depend on what, if any, laws were being violated,” Oregon Department of Education spokeswoman Amy Wojcicki wrote in an email. “If it is a Federal law, the U.S. Department of Civil Rights would have jurisdiction. If it is a state law being violated (such as harassment or bullying), after receiving complaint and investigating, ODE would issue an order against the district and if they did not comply there would be possible withholding of state funds.”

Spotlight reporter Nicole Thill

contributed to this story.