BAR HARBOR — Members of the policy committee of the Mount Desert Island Regional School System board had been working on a policy specifically regarding discrimination against transgender students, but a lawyer for the school system convinced them it isn’t necessary.
In December, Superintendent Marc Gousse asked Melissa Hewey, an attorney at Drummond Woodsum, the Portland law firm that provides legal counsel to many school districts in the state, for her advice on adopting a transgender policy.
She said in an email reply, “In my view and the view of my colleagues here… although there are exceptions driven by the needs of particular communities, the best practice is to have a general policy prohibiting discrimination and then address specific circumstances through guidelines or procedures.”
Hewey noted that the MDI school system already has a policy that states, “Discrimination against and harassment of students because of race, color, sex, sexual orientation, religion, ancestry or national origin, or disability is prohibited.”
The policy goes on to state, “The term ‘sexual orientation’ under state law means a person’s ‘actual or perceived heterosexuality, bisexuality, homosexuality or gender identity or expression.’
Hewey wrote that the school system’s existing policy “provides sufficient protection for transgender students…”
“Using guidelines/procedures to address the nuts and bolts details of how the school unit will ensure that transgender students are not discriminated against provides you with greater flexibility in making practical tweaks as issues arise without having to go through the cumbersome process of adopting or amending a policy,” Hewey concluded.
In light of that advice, Gousse said, the policy committee decided not to recommend that the school board adopt a specific transgender policy.
What is needed, instead, he said, is more focus on educating students, staff and the community about “tolerance and acceptance and diversity.”
He said there are student groups in the school system, such as the MDI High School Gay-Straight Alliance, that can be helpful in raising awareness among adults, as well as among students.
“We’re developing some professional development and information pieces that will be used in all of our schools,” Gousse said. “We need to make sure that in word and in deed we’re doing the professional thing and making sure that we’re inclusionary and non-discriminatory.”
The elementary school committees in Tremont and Southwest Harbor discussed a possible policy in November. Parent Clara Baker, who attended both those meetings, said she believes drafting a specific policy would send a stronger message than relying on existing non-discrimination rules. Baker serves on the board of Downeast GLESN, whose mission is to “create safe and affirming schools for all, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.” Two dozen school districts in the state have such policies in place.
Gousse said he knows that some people will be unhappy that the schools don’t have a specific policy on discrimination against transgender students.
“But I would argue that we’ve got a policy that encompasses that community as well as others,” he said. “I think the more global we can keep our policies the better, and then we can enact procedures that can be amended administratively, as long as the school board is aware.
“I don’t want anybody to think that [by not having a specific transgender policy] we’re being insensitive or don’t care. We’re just approaching it in a different framework.”
Trans info sessions set
The school system has scheduled two information sessions for parents and anyone else who wants to attend “to learn more about trans identity and how to support the trans youth in our community.”
The first session will be on Thursday, March 7 at 4:30 p.m. at MDI High School. The second will be on Tuesday, March 12 at 5 p.m. at Pemetic Elementary School in Southwest Harbor.
Leading both sessions will be Hannah Ruhlin, the LGBTQ+ community organizer with Health Equity Alliance, which describes itself as “a non-profit agency providing direct services and advocating on behalf of Maine’s LGBTQ+ community, people living with HIV/AIDS and people who use drugs.”