SOUTH PORTLAND — The school board approved a policy on Monday aimed at protecting the rights of transgender students.

The policy passed by a vote of 4-2, with Chairman Dick Matthews and Jennifer Kirk opposed.

“We think having a clear policy will protect students. We want all students to feel safe, ready to learn and welcome in our schools,” Supt. Ken Kunin said. “We know sadly the rate of suicide and attempted suicide is far higher than the numbers in general for youth and we think having clear policies that guard our actions and policies will save lives.”

Matthews and Kunin said there are transgender students attending South Portland schools, but neither could say how many.

Kunin said the policy is supported by transgender students and their parents, and support was also voiced from parents, students and the community at a Sept. 25 workshop.

Kunin said there are also federal laws in place to accommodate transgender youth under Title IX. He said the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled in a 2014 case, Doe v. Regional School Unit 26, in favor of Nicole Maines (Doe), a transgender girl who been had denied the use of a girl’s restroom by Regional School Unit 26. The court ruled the school district violated Maine’s Human Rights Act.

The new policy is intended to ensure that transgender students will be able to use restrooms and locker rooms of the gender they identify with and will be free from bullying.

Gender identity is defined in the policy as “a person’s deeply held sense or psychological knowledge of their own gender. One’s gender identity can be the same or different than the gender assigned at birth.”

Under South Portland’s new policy, “A student who has been identified as transgender … should be permitted to use the restrooms assigned to the gender which the student consistently asserts at school. A transgender student who expresses a need for privacy will be provided with reasonable alternative facilities or accommodations such as using a separate stall or a staff facility. However, a student shall not be required to use a separate non-communal facility over his/her objection.”

According to the policy, “A transgender student will not be required to use a locker room that conflicts with the gender identity consistently asserted at school. A transgender student who expresses a need for privacy will be provided with reasonable alternative facilities or accommodations, such as using a separate stall, a staff facility or separate schedule.”

Kunin said the intent is to make everyone feel comfortable in school. “Somebody being a little uncomfortable is not enough to deny someone’s rights, so that is an important marker for us,” he said.

He said there have been no reports of students being made uncomfortable in school restrooms.

“I’ve never had a situation, nor have I heard of any in reading or in consultations but it’s the one (issue) that gets people excited,” Kunin said.

Matthews said he voted against the policy because schools already have policies in place to protect children of all races, religions, nationalities and sexual orientations.

“We have policies in place for all of our children. I felt we already covered everything with that process,” Matthews said. “It wasn’t that I was against it.”

The policy does not permit students to “casually” say they are a different gender, but that “a student will be considered transgender if, at school, he/she consistently asserts a gender identity or expression different from the gender assigned at birth.”

Also, identifying as transgender does not necessarily require a medical diagnosis, according to the policy.

School officials are directed to protect transgender students from being bullied, and teachers and staff members are encouraged to notify administrators if they see students being bullied or harassed.

The policy also reminds school officials not to disclose that the student is transgender if the student does not want others to know. Also, staff should address the transgender student by the pronoun he or she prefers.

Name changes will only be done “upon receipt of documentation that a student’s name or gender has been changed in accordance with any applicable laws. Any requests to change a student’s legal name or gender in official records should be referred to the Superintendent,” according to the policy.

“Transgender students may dress in accordance with their consistently asserted gender identity, consistent with any applicable requirements in the dress code or school rules,” the policy states.

The board also approved a set of guidelines so school administrators can set standards while working with transgender students, but also stipulated that administrators and school staff are to “consider the needs of students on a case-by-case basis.”

“We think it is really important that we have a policy on the books and we will continue to keep looking at it to make sure it is the right policy,” Kunin said.

Melanie Sochan can be reached at 781-3661 ext.106 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @melaniesochan.