Education

Rochester Public Schools move to formalize procedure for helping transgender kids

A man listens during a meeting.
Superintendent Kent Pekel listens during a Rochester Public Schools board meeting in Rochester.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2021

Rochester Public Schools is formalizing guidelines crafted last fall aimed at helping transgender and gender-nonconforming students navigate school.

Last week, the school board said it would write the guidelines into district procedure, essentially codifying what up until now was advice to school administrators on everything from using preferred student pronouns at school to providing comfortable changing rooms and bathrooms for kids. 

The move comes as the U.S Department of Education releases updates to Title IX, a federal regulation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs and activities.

Those updates include a clarification that sex discrimination includes discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. 

School districts across Minnesota are grappling with the same questions as Rochester is, said  Minnesota School Boards Association Executive Director Kirk Schneidawind. His organization is in the process of updating guidance for all Minnesota districts based on these changes.

“They just want clarity around those pieces so they can deliver high quality services to their kids and families,” he said.

Gender identity disclosure

In anticipation of the new federal updates, Rochester school leaders sent its guidance out to school administrators last fall, said Rochester Public Schools Superintendent Kent Pekel.

Whether teachers should proactively tell parents if a student is expressing a different gender identity than assigned at birth while they are at school is one aspect of Rochester’s guidance that’s drawn attention from the community. 

If a parent asks school staff about how their child is expressing their gender at school, staff should share whatever information they have, Pekel said. However staff won’t proactively seek this information from students or volunteer this information to parents. 

“We want our teachers focused on reading, math and science. When these issues arise, we will respond to them compassionately and effectively,” he said. “And so there is very clear responsibility in the guidance to inform parents if we possess the information, but not to commit our staff to be somehow proactively looking for issues of gender identity when that’s neither their job nor their expertise.”

School staff may decide differently if there’s concern for a student’s well being, said Pekel. 

“We are not proactively encouraging kids to grapple with particular things,” he said. “We are embracing students as they bring these issues into our schools, because we want them to bring their whole selves into our schools.”

Pushback

A group of Rochester citizens raised concerns at recent school board meetings about the guidance in general and specifically around whether staff should proactively tell parents about their child’s gender identity. 

Among them is elementary school counselor Christina Barton. 

Christina Barton
Christina Barton, a counselor with Rochester Public Schools, speaks to the school board on Tuesday regarding the district's guidelines regarding transgender and gender-expansive students.
Jordan Shearer | Post Bulletin

“How would a parent know how to request such information if they aren’t aware their child is struggling with gender dysphoria? How would a parent be able to care for and support their student if the school never reached out to them,” she said at one meeting. 

Other concerns raised at recent meetings range far outside the scope of school involvement, including whether hormone therapy is appropriate for transgender kids and if the guidelines are at odds with students’ religious views. 

In an unusual move, the Rochester Education Association board issued a statement in support of the guidelines and condemning Barton’s opposition saying that her views didn’t represent the views of union members. 

“These guidelines are compassionate, they are just and they follow the best practices of many of our governing organizations including the National Education Association and the American School Counselor Association,” said Rochester Education Association Executive Director Vince Wagner. “We also support the full expression of their personal identities including the safe and healthy choices they make as they work to identify themselves.” 

Student safety

Rochester’s approach to disclosure of a student’s gender identity is not unusual among schools, said Terry Morrow who is a lawyer for the Minnesota School Boards Association. 

There is no state requirement that teachers disclose this information, he said.

But the safety of the student plays into these individual decisions, and Morrow said it cuts both ways.

“Schools certainly must consider whether disclosing a student’s gender identity would potentially subject them to bullying or other negative harmful behavior at school,” he said. “I don’t know of any specific Minnesota situation. But I can say nationally, there are discussions about whether involuntary disclosure to family could potentially subject a child to harmful behavior within the home.”

A looming question, said Morrow, is who wins this year’s presidential election. The Obama, Trump and Biden administrations have all made changes to Title IX, and more could come if former President Donald Trump retakes the White House. 

Still, Morrow said Minnesota law provides some consistency going forward regardless of future changes at the federal level — for instance a court case that gives a student the right to select a bathroom, or a locker room consistent with their gender identity. 

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