The Portland school board is poised to adopt one of the state’s most comprehensive transgender student policies, one that goes beyond the “bathroom issue” by requiring staff training, using a student’s preferred name and personal pronoun, and taking the student’s side at school if there is disagreement with a parent’s wishes.

The changes will make Portland one of the first few school districts in the state to adopt policies surrounding transgender students.

Superintendent Xavier Botana said the district decided to act after the Trump administration withdrew in February the Obama-era guidelines that included gender identity under Title IX, the federal law that bans sex discrimination in schools.

“The community and board members rallied to ensure that we, as a school district committed to equity, made clear our commitment to support our transgender and gender expansive students,” Botana said. “Our equity goals state that (Portland Public Schools) is vigilant in supporting each and every student’s particular path to achieving high standards and rooting out systemic or ongoing inequities, and this policy is an effort to do just that.”

The school board will vote on the policy at its regular meeting Tuesday.

“It’s a good official first step,” said Alexander Fitzgerald, 18, a transgender student who worked on the policy with board and district officials. “It’s really important to me that I can come here and know my identity will be respected by staff. I feel like I can be myself here.”

Fitzgerald, a senior at Deering High School, said the staff training component is important because that lets students know they can go to any teacher for help – not just a counselor or someone they think might be sympathetic – and everyone will know what their rights are under the policy.

“Students won’t have to stumble around,” Fitzgerald said. He noted that in his experience so far, school officials and teachers have generally been supportive and have “good intentions,” but it’s largely been up to individual students to educate their peers and teachers about respectful language and terminology.

“It will be nice to know that it’s the adults’ job to educate each other, and not the children’s job to educate the adults,” he said.

DIFFERENT GENDER IDENTITIES

The policy also normalizes the idea that students have different gender identities, said Izzy Smith, who also worked on the policy and is co-president with Fitzgerald of Deering’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance school club. Smith, a senior, said the group has grown from four members when she was a freshman to more than 20 members this year.

“It will help,” Smith said. “It will make the process a lot more smooth.”

There are only about a half-dozen schools in Maine that have adopted transgender policies, said Gia Drew, program director of Equality Maine.

The first was adopted by Millinocket in early 2015, soon after the Maine Supreme Judicial Court issued the nation’s first state court ruling affirming the right of a transgender student to use a bathroom corresponding with her gender identity. The most recent was last week, when South Portland adopted its transgender student policy.

Drew said the policies are similar, and many are based on boilerplate language suggested by the law firm Drummond Woodsum, which represents most school districts, and the Maine School Management Association. The language reflects an interpretation of the court ruling by the Maine Human Rights Commission, she said.

In general, the policies say students should be addressed by their chosen names and pronouns, and be allowed to use bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity. The policies also define terms such as sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and transgender, and address student privacy issues.

PROVIDES ‘UNIFORMITY’ ON ISSUES

But Portland’s policy is different in that it uses more expansive language to make clear that it applies to not just transgender students, but students who have wider gender identities. The policy also requires staff training.

For example, the policy is called the “transgender and gender expansive student policy” – with the term “gender expansive” meant to acknowledge and include students who have other gender identities: “male, female, both, neither, or in some other way (for example, students who identify in some other way such as nonbinary, queer, genderqueer or gender fluid),” the policy states.

It also includes language explicitly stating that if there is disagreement between a student and his or her parents or legal guardian, the district will “abide by the wishes of the student with regard to their gender identity and gender expression while at school.” This language is the same as recommended by the Maine Human Rights Commission.

The district has transgender students at all school levels, from elementary school to high school.

A social worker at Ocean Avenue Elementary School said he welcomed the policy, telling the school board about his experience two years ago with an 8-year-old student who came to him to say he was going to transition to female.

“This student said she knew since he was 2 years old that he was female,” said Chris Salamone. “We were mostly led by this child and her family.”

Several years ago, an elementary student at Lyseth Elementary School transitioned with the support of the school.

Exact figures on how many transgender students are in a particular district or statewide are not available from state sources.

However, in January a think tank estimated that there were 450 Maine teens ages 13 to 17, or 0.55 percent of that age group, who identify as transgender. The study was conducted by the Williams Institute at the University of California Los Angeles, which researches gender identity. The institute based its estimates on statistical modeling using data from a 2014 federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey in which people in 19 states were asked about gender identity. Maine did not participate in the survey.

Drew, at Equality Maine, said there are now about 80 middle and high schools in Maine that have student clubs formed around gender identity and sexual orientation, increasingly in rural areas.

Transgender policies do more than just give students the tools to advocate for themselves, Drew said. “It also gives parents something to use, and it gives schools uniformity on how to talk about these issues,” she said.

‘THIS CAN BE LIFESAVING’

Melissa McStay, a social worker at Deering High School, said there is also a public health component to the policy. Students who feel marginalized or isolated have higher rates of self-harm and suicide.

“This policy is a message to our staff, youth and faculty that they are accepted and will be supported. This can be lifesaving,” McStay said.

Maine has been at the forefront of the national discussion around transgender student rights. In 2014, Maine had the nation’s first state court ruling that affirmed the right of a transgender student to use the bathroom corresponding with her gender identity.

The issue began in 2007, when Nicole Maines, then a transgender fifth-grader at Asa Adams Elementary School in Orono, was instructed to use a staff bathroom after a grandparent of another student, a boy, complained that Maines was allowed to use the girls’ bathroom.

The Maine Human Rights Commission found that was unlawful discrimination and sued in Superior Court along with Nicole’s parents, Wayne and Kelly Maines. The case went all the way to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which ruled in Maines’ favor in December 2014.

Within a year of the ruling, the Millinocket school district adopted the state’s first transgender policy, and Orono quickly followed.

In January 2016, the human rights commission issued guidance to reflect its interpretation of the Maines ruling on the Maine Human Rights Act.

The guidance says schools should allow any student with a “sincerely held” gender identity to be recognized in all ways as that gender, including using bathrooms, playing sports, being addressed by a preferred name and pronoun, being allowed to dress as preferred, and in the event of a conflict with parents’ wishes, to abide by the students’ wishes while at school.

But Gov. Paul LePage stopped the guidance from becoming the basis for rulemaking, saying the Legislature should pass a law before regulations are imposed.

That left it up to individual school districts to pass a patchwork of transgender policies, Drew said.

Even without statewide rules, officials say any Maine public school that prohibits transgender students from using bathrooms or locker rooms that match their gender identity likely would be in violation of the Maine Human Rights Act. The human rights commission can investigate alleged violations, and can sue to stop discrimination in the public interest. If the commission makes a finding of “reasonable grounds,” students or parents also have a right to file a lawsuit.

Other districts that have adopted a transgender policy include Mount Desert, Kennebunk and Scarborough.

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