After heated meeting, New Hanover changes policy on transgender athletes in middle schools

The New Hanover County Board of Education is located on South 15th Street near Lake Forest Academy in Wilmington.
The New Hanover County Board of Education is located on South 15th Street near Lake Forest Academy in Wilmington.

Transgender students participating in middle school athletics will no longer be able to compete on teams that correspond with their gender identity starting next school year after the New Hanover County Board of Education voted to reverse district policy on the issue.

After an exhaustive debate, several failed attempts to table or alter the policy and one extended closed session to discuss the matter, the school board voted 4-3 to amend Policy 3620, which governs extracurricular activities and student organizations.

Under the newly approved language, middle school athletes “… may only participate on a team consistent with the gender on the student's birth certificate unless in violation of North Carolina State law.”

The policy change is a departure from the district’s previous stance, which allowed middle school students to participate on teams that aligned with their gender identity. At the high school level, policy is left to the North Carolina High School Athletic Association.

What is the new policy?

The New Hanover County Board of Education passed its previous policy in June 2021. During the process, the board waived requirements to read and discuss the policy before passing it, which led some to accuse the board of violating its own rules in rushing to pass the policy change.

Soon after the board took up Policy 3620, board vice chair Pat Bradford introduced an amendment to change the language of the policy to its final version. Initially, the policy stated students could participate on teams that corresponded with the gender on their birth certificate “… unless otherwise permitted under New Hanover County Schools administrative procedures.”

Background:As tensions rise, New Hanover County Schools take next step on transgender policy

An additional motion by board chair Pete Wildeboar changed the new policy to take effect at the start of the next school year.

Bradford changed the language of the policy to bring it back to “the status quo,” but her motion distressed multiple board members who questioned whether the board properly understood federal law governing this issue and if it was appropriate for the school board to change a policy at the last minute.

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“I know our attorney has given us counsel on this already, and I think that what was said, and I hope I don't over speak here, we were advised that if you're going to do a policy that strikes it (we) will probably be open up to lawsuits unless we put a process in place,” said board member Stephanie Walker.

Efforts by board member Stephanie Kraybill to postpone changing the policy until the board received Title IX training and to grandfather in current transgender athletes both failed by narrow votes.

Ultimately, Bradford’s proposed changes were approved by a 4-3 vote. Board members Josie Barnhart, Melissa Mason, Wildeboer and Bradford, voted in favor of the revised policy. Board members Kraybill, Walker and Hugh McManus voted against the policy change.

Public opinion was mixed, heated

Public opinion on changing the policy was split, and contentious at times during the first public comment period at Tuesday’s meeting. Speakers were often met with cheers and boos after each public comment, and the meeting had to be stopped briefly due to unruliness in the crowd.

Throughout the first half of the public comment period, those in favor of preserving the policy said preventing transgender students from participating in middle school athletics would infringe on their civil rights, open the school district to potential litigation and discriminate against transgender athletes.

“There's not been one complaint from anyone associated with these teams, and all seven middle school athletic directors unanimously support their students in this policy as it is written,” said one individual who supported the previous version of Policy 3620.

“It is my fear that this is a first step by members of the board who are targeting LGBTQ students in which to remove policies in place that protect us from harm,” said another speaker, who identified themself as a transgender man and an LGBTQ student in the school system.

Those who spoke against the policy questioned the fairness of letting students who were assigned male at birth participate in female sports. Some even went as far as to question the safety of letting transgender athletes compete in female sports.

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This article originally appeared on Wilmington StarNews: New Hanover school board changes policy on transgender athletes