Proposed law would change bathroom, locker room rules for transgender students

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Nick Crow
Wednesday, October 7, 2015

JANESVILLE — The Janesville School District could be forced to change its policy on nondiscrimination if a bill to limit the use of facilities by transgender students becomes state law.

Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, and Sen. Steve Nass, R-LaGrange, introduced the bill that would require school boards to designate bathrooms and locker rooms as exclusive to one gender. The bill would bar transgender students from using school bathrooms or locker rooms assigned to the gender with with they identify.

Chris Wesling, coordinator of student services for the district, said the school board might have to modify its policy if the law were to pass.

"We'd have to do whatever the law tells us to do," Wesling said.

Board policy 5020, student nondiscrimination, states that the district "shall also provide for the reasonable accommodation of a student's confirmed transgender identity with regard to access to single sex-designated school facilities and programs."

The policy states that requests for accommodations for transgender students be made in writing by a parent or guardian and then approved by the building principal.

District officials have stated they couldn't rule out scenarios in which boys and girls would use the same locker rooms. Passage of the bill would prevent that from ever happening.

The district's board policy reads that transgender student accommodations  "may include, but not 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."

The board added the section on transgender accommodations in September 2014.

The school district already had been in place policies that 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.

"We've had three (students apply) over the last year," Wesling said. "They've come through as a request for accommodations. They've gone through the process, which goes through the principal. A review board, the building principal, legal counsel, the superintendent and the parent all take a look at it."

Each decision is made on a case-by-case basis, Wesling said.

"All three were resolved so that the student in question ended up using a private bathroom," she said.

In the Madison School District, transgender students get access to the restrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their gender identity if they choose. The district's policy states that if a staff member or classmate objects, the district will make other accommodations for the person who complained.

The bill would require a school board to provide reasonable accommodations for a student to use a single-occupancy changing room when the following conditions are met:

-- The student identifies as a member of the male sex but is a member of the female sex, or the student identifies as a member of the female sex but is a member of the male sex.

-- The student or the parent or guardian of the student submits a written request to the school board to receive the accommodation.

"This bill reinforces the societal norm in our schools that students born biologically male must not be allowed to enter facilities designated for biological females and vice versa," Kremer wrote in a memo sent to lawmakers.

The proposed legislation, Kremer said, is the result of a situation in the Kewaskum School District in which a student who was born female but identified as male repeatedly used a school bathroom for boys.

"We believe it is appropriate and in the best interest of our students and faculty to introduce a standardized, statewide policy regarding gender-specific bathroom usage in our public schools," Kremer wrote. "To put it plainly, no student of any gender should be made to feel uncomfortable or threatened in the most private places in our schools."

Kremer wrote that the benefits of the bill would be to ensure even policy application and enforcement, prevent discrimination and protect all students' privacy and safety.

The bill would require school boards that receive a written complaint from a student or the parent or guardian of a student to investigate and attempt to resolve the complaint within 30 days.

The lawmakers proposing the legislation also want the state Department of Justice to defend school districts in lawsuits that challenge the requirements.

The Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund said the bill singles out transgender students for discrimination.

"Transgender young people already face immense harassment and bias when they are just trying to participate in their school environments as their authentic selves. Legislation like this would further stigmatize transgender students and harm their health and well-being," the group's executive director, Michael Silverman, said in a statement Wednesday.

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.

Wesling said the proposed legislation is the first she's heard of on the matter.

"I think the focus of the (board) policy is to make sure we don't discriminate and we follow the law," Wesling said. "Those are the two considerations we take into account."

When asked what can happen when those two ideals overlap, Wesling said the "law always wins out, doesn't it?"

"But that doesn't mean when working with people that you can't be understanding or compassionate or do the best you can for them," she said.

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