Aug. 28—Mesa Public Schools issued new guidelines for accommodating transgender and gender-noncomforming students in schools July 14, triggering critics who say the district's diversity and inclusion initiatives are going too far.
Some critics spoke out at the Aug. 23 MPS Governing Board meeting, where they offered strongly worded critiques of some of the protocols, which allow students to use bathrooms and locker rooms of the gender they identify with.
Governing board candidate Ed Steele and other local activists have campaigned against "woke ideology" in schools and have been circulating the guidelines online along with harsh critiques.
The Twitter account of the Republican Party of Arizona even weighed in, sharing a post from Steele that said, "Mesa Public Schools is committed to hiding the 'gender' status of students from parents if student requests."
The school district says it is following federal guidelines and protecting students.
In a statement to the Tribune, MPS Communications and Engagement Director Joseph Valdez said, "The guidelines are intended to help schools ensure a safe learning environment free from discrimination and harassment, and to support the educational and social needs of transgender and gender-nonconforming students,"
Some of the key components of MPS' new guidelines, which are posted on the district's website at mpsaz.org/legal/tngns, include:
* Schools will allow transgender or gender-nonconforming students to use the chosen name and gender pronouns that reflect their identity, regardless of whether they have legally changed their names.
* Schools must allow students to use facilities that match their gender identities including restrooms, locker rooms, shower facilities and single-sex classes.
* Schools can't require transgender students to use facilities inconsistent with their gender identity or to use individual-user facilities when other students are not required to do so, but they may make individual-user options available to all students who voluntarily seek additional privacy.
A student's legal name recorded in MPS' Synergy Student Information System will be protected for privacy and separated from other parts of the student record.
Regarding athletic participation, the district will conform to HB 1165, which was signed by Gov. Doug Ducey in March and goes into effect Sept. 24. The law is intended to prohibit transgender women and girls from competing on athletic teams or in sports "designated for 'females,' 'women,' or 'girls.'"
Along with the guidelines, MPS has also created a standardized form titled "Support Plan for Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Students."
The form asks transgender or gender-nonconforming students to name a "support facilitator" at the school to discuss plans for using school facilities, outline their preferred names and pronouns and describe how open they wanted to be about their identify on campus.
"Because the guidelines do not anticipate every situation that may occur, the needs of each student must be assessed on a case-by-case basis," Valdez wrote. "The support plan is a tool provided to assist in addressing the student's needs."
Valdez said a draft of the guidelines has been in existence for several years.
The reason for issuing the guidelines this summer, he said, was an official interpretation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 released by the Biden administration in June 2021.
According to Valdez, "The U.S. Department of Education/Office for Civil Rights issued a Notice of Interpretation clarifying the agency's interpretation of Title IX to include a prohibition on sex discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and explaining that they will enforce this prohibition."
Since issuing the guidelines, the MPS' standardized form gathering information from transgender students has been a particular lightening rod for criticism.
Based on screenshots of the document shared online, this form has been updated by MPS at least twice since the guidelines were issued, most recently Aug. 23.
The changes appear to primarily relate to communication between schools and parents about students' gender identity status.
Early versions of the form ask students if their parents are aware of their transition status, if they approve of it and whether or not the school has the student's permission to share information about their gender identity with parents.
The now-deleted part of the form in-part spurred Steele's complaints about schools "hiding" students' gender identities.
The latest version of the form avoids questions about parents and guardians altogether, stating only, "Parents/guardians will be notified if the student requests changes to Synergy," the district's student records system.
The MPS guidelines, separate from the student form, further clarify that the form "is a confidential student record ... subject to inspection and review by the student's parent or guardian."
The implication is parents have the right to access information about the student's reported gender identity, but schools will only contact parents about gender identity issues in limited circumstances.
That was a problem for Sharon Benson, who spoke during public comment at the Aug. 23 governing board meeting.
The changes to the form mean "the student is 100% solely in charge of this transgender issue on a school campus," Benson said to the board.
"This, of course, has the effect of putting children in an adversarial position with their parent, and it undermines parent authority."
Benson also took issue with leaving the choice of accommodation "facilitator" up to the student.
"It would be unwise to allow just any adult on campus to fill this role, as most adults would not be knowledgeable about the issue and they could not properly guide," Benson said.
"Wisdom would only have qualified counselors willing to explore fully with the students the feelings they're experiencing. Wisdom would not mandate that only gender affirming care be given."
Chris Hamlet, who is also a candidate for the governing board, asked board members during public comment why the guidelines were put out by the superintendent and legal department, and not debated and voted on by the board.
"I would like you to show me one parent of one daughter that would be okay with their daughter in a locker room getting ready to shower with a boy in the room with his genitals in front of her face," he said. "Just find me one parent that is okay with that. I don't care if it's a father or mother, one parent that's okay with their daughter being in that environment."
Open meeting laws prevented the governing board from responding to citizen comments or discussing the transgender guidelines because the topic was not on the agenda.