BAR HARBOR — Recommended guidelines for dealing with transgender students have been forwarded to the individual schools in the Mount Desert Island Regional School System (MDIRSS) by the policy committee of the MDIRSS board.
It is now up to the school committees overseeing each of the elementary schools and MDI High School to decide whether to adopt the guidelines.
The guidelines define “transgender” as “an adjective describing a person whose gender identity or expression is different from that traditionally associated with an assigned sex at birth.”
“Gender identity” is defined as “a person’s deeply held sense or psychological knowledge of their own gender. One’s gender identity can be the same [as] or different [from] the gender assigned at birth.”
The term “gender expression” describes “the manner in which a person represents or expresses gender to others, often through behavior, clothing, hairstyles, activities, voice or mannerisms.”
The stated purpose of the guidelines is “to foster a learning environment that is safe and free from discrimination, harassment and bullying and to assist in the educational and social integration of transgender students in our schools.”
The guidelines are not intended to cover every possible situation, but to establish general ground rules. However, some specific issues are addressed, such as which restroom a transgender student should use.
The guidelines state, “A student who has been identified as transgender … should be permitted to use the restrooms assigned to the gender that the student consistently asserts at school.” In other words, a student who identifies as female should be allowed to use the girls’ restroom.
The question of which locker room a transgender student should use is more complicated. The guidelines state that the decision should be based on a number of considerations including students’ safety and comfort, the transgender student’s preference, student privacy, the ages of students and available facilities.
“A transgender student will not be required to use a locker room that conflicts with the gender identity consistently asserted at school,” the guidelines state. “A transgender student who expresses a need for privacy will be provided reasonable alternative facilities or accommodations, such as using a separate stall, a staff facility or separate schedule.”
In general, students may dress in accordance with their gender identity, according to the guidelines.
The MDIRSS board discussed the proposed guidelines at its May 18 meeting. Board member Teresa King-Leclair said that during their teen years, many students “are trying to figure out who they are.”
If a student is allowed to use the restroom or locker room of their choice, “How will that impact the other children … if they don’t know whether this person is really a transgender or if they are just trying it out?” Leclair asked.
Superintendent Howard Colter said, “Whatever a student identifies as their gender, we want to try and respect that, understanding that they may still be at a point of development that may lead them in another direction.
“I don’t think most students would say they want to go into the other locker room just to be silly,” Colter said. “That isn’t going to pass muster.”
He said that, in society in general, there seems to be a trend toward gender-neutral restrooms, ones that persons of either gender may use in privacy.
“I think we’re going to see more and more of that in our schools,” he said.
He acknowledged that accommodating a transgender student and implementing the guidelines would require discussions among teachers, staff, students and families.
“It’s going to take some work; we understand that,” he said. “But I think our whole school district will be better for it when we get this right.”
The transgender guidelines were developed by the school system’s law firm, Drummond Woodsum of Portland, which drew on guidelines and policies in place in other school districts.
Board member Judy Sproule asked why Colter and the board’s policy committee were recommending that the individual schools adopt transgender “guidelines” instead of a “policy.”
Colter said the attorneys thought guidelines would allow schools more flexibility in dealing with individual students and situations.
“It gives general direction to the administration about how to be appropriate, legal and fair in the process and leave some room for discussion, negotiations and compromise,” he said.