(VIDEO) Decatur School Board agrees to review policy on transgender studentsHundreds of people attended the Oct. 10 Decatur School Board meeting to speak about the school system's policy on transgender students. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt
This story has been updated.
After nearly three hours of passionate and emotional public comments mostly in defense of City Schools of Decatur’s policy on transgender students, the School Board announced Tuesday that it is open to reviewing the policy further.
But the School Board took no action to reverse the policy that’s currently in place, which says students are to be treated according to their preferred gender identity and they should be allowed access to facilities according to their preferred gender, including bathrooms.
“We support the superintendent’s instructions to staff regarding transgender students,” board Chair Annie Caiola said. “We also recognize that there are members of our community with questions and privacy concerns that need to be addressed. Over the next several months, we will be participating in community events offering learning opportunities in this area. We will be gathering input from the community on our current policy and we will be reviewing our current policy to consider potential changes in order to further our goal of ensuring that all students feels safe, supported and valued.”
The Decatur School Board held a special work session before its regular meeting regarding the transgender policy. The work session, and the regular meeting after it, was attended by more than 100 people, including transgender City Schools of Decatur students. Most spoke in favor of the policy currently in place, but there were several who said it was adopted without enough public input. Parents on both sides were concerned about the safety of their children.
Several transgender students spoke during the meeting. One of them told the board, “Despite what some people say, I’m a real girl.”
“I understand people may want to change the system because they don’t understand me or people like me,” she said. “People are normally afraid when they see something [they don’t understand]. It’s OK to be afraid. It’s the human reaction. I am quaking in my white converse sneakers. But no matter how scared you are, how much you don’t know this uncertain territory, it’s not OK to deprive students of their rights just for that reason.”
The issue has been simmering in the background for several months but became a public controversy after two parents and an attorney claiming to be part of a “parents coalition” raised concerns about the policy during a September School Board meeting. The speakers pointed to a July 2016 memo written by Superintendent David Dude outlining his response to guidance issued by the Obama administration about transgender students. That guidance was reversed by the Trump administration. A petition against the policy says Dude’s 2016 directive was given without sufficient public input.
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In his 2016 memo, Dude told staff that he expects students to be addressed using their preferred gender identity and that students should be allowed access to facilities – like restrooms – and activities based on their preferred gender identity. There have been no reports of any problems stemming from CSD staff following the guidance in Dude’s memo.
In a blog post about the 2016 memo, Dude said nothing about Decatur’s policy has changed.
“The Board policy … was in place prior to the guidance issued last year and remains in place today,” he wrote. “In fact, that Board policy has included protections for transgender students for at least 10 years.”
But the petition organizers say the policy has changed. The petition cites an Atlanta Journal Constitution article which quoted Dude as saying that transgender students “mostly” use the faculty or referee restrooms. The article was published a couple of weeks before Dude’s 2016 memo was sent to CSD staff.
Mark and Gena Major, the parents who spoke at the September School Board meeting, and Norcross-based attorney Vernadette Broyles, attended a meeting of the school system’s “Equal Opportunity Task Force” that occurred in May of this year. The task force was asked to review the school system’s Equal Educational Opportunities policy and see if any changes needed to be made. More than a dozen people attended and many of the attendees objected to the policy.
Broyles and the Majors attended the Oct. 10 School Board meeting. Broyles said she is currently representing about five clients who have concerns about CSD’s policy, including the Majors. She said there are more supporters who are scared to come forward because they don’t want to be labeled as a bigot.
“No student should be forced to share a locker room, shower or other intimate setting with anyone of the opposite sex,” Broyles said. “School officials have a duty to protect the privacy, safety, dignity and fairness for all students. The superintendent and board have failed to fulfill their duty, and the new policy contained in the July 2016 Superintendent’s memo violates students’ and parents’ rights and the spirit and letter of Title IX [federal law]. Parents of the City Schools of Decatur were kept completely in the dark about this harmful policy change, having been given no opportunity to review it before implementation.”
She called on the board to rescind the policy.
Erin Swenson, a transgender woman, licensed psychotherapist and Presbyterian minister was invited to participate in the task force meeting in May. Swenson was also a part of the School Board’s work session before Tuesday’s meeting.
During the work session, she encouraged attendees to learn more about transgender people.
“We are different ages, different sizes, different religions, different colors. We have all kinds of differences,” she said. “Don’t say that you really met and know and understand transgender people because you’ve had the pleasure of meeting me.”
Dude has been clear on where he stands. Following the meeting, he updated his Facebook profile picture to include a rainbow flag, a sign of support for the LGBT community.