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Janesville School Board bans discrimination against transgender students

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Nick Crow
September 4, 2014

JANESVILLE—Transgender students will be allowed to use the restrooms and locker rooms of the gender with which they identify if their parents first clear it with school principals, according to modified Janesville School District policies.

The Janesville School Board changed policies to ban discrimination based on gender identity. Policies already banned discrimination based on sex; race; religion; national origin; ancestry; creed; color; pregnancy; marital or parental status; sexual orientation; or physical, mental, emotional, or learning disability.

Katy Hess, Gay-straight Alliance adviser and teacher at Craig High School, is hopeful the policy changes for transgender students will help protect the students and allow them to feel more comfortable.

"I have to commend the school board and the school district for stepping up," Hess said. "The GSA and a lot of people were really pleased to see that."

Hess said she regularly hears students in the club talk about bullying and harassment.

"When you're in meetings with the kids, in GSA, kids talk," Hess said. "They talk about things they have to deal with. So, I know what goes on. Our whole point is to create tolerance and to educate people."

Hess has taught in the district for 26 years.

"Transgender basically means the person's brain is wired to be a male or female, but they are born with the other body," Hess said.

Wording added to the non-discrimination policy says the district "will provide for reasonable accommodation of a student's confirmed transgender identity with regard to access to single sex-designated school facilities and programs."

Requests for accommodations will have to be made in writing by a student's parent or guardian and approved by the building principal, according to policy.

The policy notes that accommodations "may include, but not necessarily be limited to, use of the restroom designated for the gender with which the student identifies, use of the locker room designated for the gender with which the student identifies and reasonable access to other single-sex designated school facilities and programs."

Hess said Craig has a gender neutral bathroom available to students. She said she knows of five or six transgender students at the school, but the number has been rising.

"These kids have always been here," Hess said. "They were here 10 years ago, they were here 20 years ago, and they were here 50 years ago. It's just they were never safe to be who they wanted to be, and I think it's positive to have an environment that they can just be themselves."

Hess knows firsthand the difficulty of living as a transgender person. Her brother was born a female but identified as male. High school was a tough time for him, Hess said.

"Schools a tough place," Hess said. "There's a lot of bullying, and people don't understand. But I think it's awesome that the school district addressed this because personally, in my own life, I had a sister, now a brother, who had a tough time. Now he's 32 and has finally figured it out."

Hess' brother had the support of family, but some people aren't as lucky, Hess said. She said families sometimes abandon children for being homosexual or transgender.

"We were a family that said, 'We love you no matter what. We don't want to have to go to your funeral because you've done something stupid because you're self medicating because you're so unhappy,'" Hess said.

According to statistics from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 41 percent of transgender and gender non-conforming adults attempt suicide. That figure is nearly nine times the national suicide attempt rate of 4.6 percent, according to the report.

The report also indicates 10 percent to 20 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual adults report attempting suicide.

"When it happens to you, when you sit there and listen to someone you grew up with sob and talk about what they've experienced, it just rips a hole in you," Hess said.  "All of a sudden, it's like you want to become an advocate because you have a whole new insight. You might have heard about it but didn't know firsthand."

Hess said transgender students sometimes struggle because they feel they aren't understood and have nowhere to turn.

"My brother wouldn't go to the bathroom in high school because he wouldn't go in the girl's bathroom," Hess said. "But he couldn't go in the guy's bathroom because he looked like a girl at that time. So just little things like that--where you're holding your bathroom all day long--are things we take for granted."

Hess said the new rules in the district should help students and teachers be more respectful and understanding toward transgender students.

"It helps them not feel so alienated and gives them acceptance that they are OK to be who they want to be," Hess said. "I find this to be a step in the right direction."



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