Following Outcry at Meeting, Chehalis School Board Tables Decision on Transgender-Affirming Policy

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Jun. 16—With close to 75 vocal community members in attendance, the Chehalis School Board on Tuesday voted unanimously to table a vote on a state-mandated policy that would amend the district's discrimination and bullying approach to include transgender students.

Specifically, the policy would have the board "recognize the importance of an inclusive approach toward transgender and gender-expansive students with regards to key terms, communication and the use of names and pronouns, student records, confidential health and education information, communication, restroom and locker room use and accessibility, sports and physical education, dress codes, and other school activities, in order to provide these students with an equal opportunity for learning and achievement."

The policy is mandatory for public school districts due to the passage of Senate Bill 5689 during the 2019 legislative session. According to language in that bill, districts were required to update their anti-harassment policies and implement the base model by Jan. 31, 2020.

The district, its leadership and board members will now regroup on the policy, study its impacts on students and the district and decide how to move forward following the outcry. District Communications Coordinator Andy Lynch said the district will have more information by Friday on how it will move forward.

Superintendent Christine Moloney told the at times indignant crowd prior to the board's vote that the district had been notified by the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction's Office of Equity and Civil Rights on May 26 that it was out of compliance and not following Washington state law. The district was given a deadline of June 2 to notify the state Moloney would present the policy to the board.

Regardless of policy passage, Moloney said the district has already been implementing action against harassment that falls in line with the policy.

"We've already been providing support for all students, no matter whether they're transgender or just a student who's feeling bullied or uncomfortable. That has been a practice we've been doing — we're fabulous with it. We have great staff that take care of each child, and so this policy doesn't change the fact that we take care of each child, and that's really important for us," Moloney said.

Moloney said that, to the extent legally possible, the district will attempt to keep parents included in those talks and how those policies are implemented at the school level.

With some community members in staunch opposition to the implementation of the policy, and with the possibility that falling out of line with OSPI could result in financial impacts, school board members decided to pause before taking action.

Board member J. Vander Stoep, who first suggested the board table the policy and regroup, said he has looked at many aspects of the policy and noted the district really doesn't have any authority to overturn it.

"The Chehalis School District does not have an option. We are already one year late in the passing of this policy, and if the school board said 'no, we're not going to pass it,' then the attorney general would get a writ from a judge and, in no time at all, it would be dictated by law this is our policy," he said.

Vander Stoep said there also needs to be some clarification on the specifics of what will be required of staff and how far they're expected to go within that implementation.

Board member Vicki Daniels said she too was worried the district would lose state funds.

"I do know that the Chehalis School District is very sensitive to the students' needs and they'll do the best they can to try to make sure that students feel comfortable," Daniels said.

Many vocal attendees attempted to push back against the school board's reasoning, saying they'd back the district's fight against the state. Some also threatened that "Chehalis parents in droves" would pull their children out of school.

A focal point of the 40-minute back-and-forth between the school board and community members was largely about whether or not the district should allow transgender students access to whichever locker room or restroom that corresponds with their gender identity.

Transgender inclusivity in sports and restrooms has been a lightning-rod issue recently in state legislatures and across the country. Statehouses across the U.S. this year saw a record number of bills aimed against transgender civil liberties, according to the Human Rights Campaign, and the nonpartisan Pew Research Center reports at least seven governors have signed bills barring transgender students from playing sports, a discriminatory move advocates say jeopardizes their mental health.

A 2019 report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that an average 1.8% of high school students attending school in 10 states and nine urban school districts identified as transgender. Transgender students are at elevated risk to suffer from substance abuse and suicidal thoughts, the report states.

The Chronicle reached out to OSPI early Wednesday for comment on what the impacts would be if the district didn't pass the policy. A spokesperson was not available prior to The Chronicle's deadline.

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