Local school policy evolving on gender, discrimination

From left, Fulton City School District (FCSD) officials board member Tim Crandell, President Robbin Griffin and Superintendent Brian Pulvino meet for their bi-monthly meeting.   

OSWEGO COUNTY — Evolving definitions of gender and sexuality have been codified in local school district policy, reinforcing anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.

State law requires public school districts to include anti-discrimination clauses for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) students, but how those mandates are enforced varies depending on district policy. In Oswego County, the most expanded definitions of gender and sexual orientation were instituted by Mexico Academy and Central School (MACS) district, whose code of conduct for the 2018-2019 school year included definitions for cisgender, gender-nonconforming and transition.

The American Psychological Association (APA), which provides the scientific literature that informs state policies around gender and sexuality, defines “transgender” as someone whose gender identity differs from what was assigned to them at birth. By contrast, a person whose gender identity matches the one assigned at birth is “cisgender.”

In an innovative move, district leaders of the Fulton City School District (FCSD) solicited feedback from students about policy revisions to the 2019-2020 code of conduct, which students and parents will be required to sign this fall.

Members of the G. Ray Bodley High School and Fulton Junior High School student senates and secondary English and social studies students joined the district’s annual committee of building administrators tasked with revising the district-wide code of conduct.

“The consensus from that review was that no major changes really needed to occur this year, but there were some recommended changes to the language in the code,” said Geri Geitner, director of student support services.

As a result, the 2019-2020 FCSD code of conduct expands definitions of terms “gender” and “sexual orientation.” The code’s definition of gender now accounts for students who identify as transgender and non-binary, an umbrella term referring to anyone whose gender identity does not conform to the male-female dichotomy.

The code of conduct previously read, “Gender means actual or perceived sex and includes a person’s gender identity or expression.” The revised version continues the sentence to read, “including male, female, transgender and non-binary identity and/or expression.”

The definition of “sexual orientation” has also been expanded to protect students who identify as asexual, or “a person who does not experience sexual attraction or has little interest in sexual activity,” according to the APA, from harassment and discrimination.

“We also added more specific language around the use of vaping and Juul devices,.” Geitner said.

Fulton schools will now prohibit the possession of any nicotine delivery device, in response to growing concerns among district leaders that vaping is on the rise among district students.

Previously the code of conduct had only prohibited tobacco products and paraphernalia. Now, Fulton has outlawed e-cigarettes, Juuls, vapor pens and other vapor and inhalant devices, or other products such as cartridges or pods used for those devices and listed their uses as behaviors that “endanger the safety, morals, health or welfare of others.”

The Hannibal Central School District (HCSD) code of conduct now identifies gender as “one’s self concept as being male or female as distinguished from actual biological sex or sex assigned at birth.” The policy distinguishes gender identity from gender expression, meaning “the manner in which a person represents or expresses gender to others, often through behavior, clothing, hairstyle, activities, voice or mannerisms.”

The terms “gender” and “sexual orientation” are used more than 25 times in district codes of conduct in anti-bullying, anti-harassment policies and students’ rights clauses. They are listed along with race, weight and religious practices to protect students from being targeted for aspects of their personal identity.

Expanding the meanings of gender and sexual identity extends the code’s protections to students who hold those identities.

Amendments to HCSD’s code of conduct came from recommendations by the district’s legal council, Assistant Superintendent Dee Froio told The Palladium-Times. Other changes to the code were reduced redundant phrasing, Froio said.

These policy reforms come on the heels of the most progressive policy agenda in recent New York state politics, with Democrats effectively controlling Albany lawmaking. The latest state Legislature session saw the passage of multiple legal reinforcements to the state’s protection of LGBTQ people.

The Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, or GENDA, passed the state Legislature in January and was promptly signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The new law prohibits discrimination based on gender identity or expression — including conversion therapies — and adds transgender people to those protected by state anti-hate crimes laws.

These measures put the state’s education facilities in legal conflict with the Trump administration’s interpretation of Title IX anti-discrimination protections based on gender and sexual orientation. The U.S. Department of Education, under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, announced in February of 2018 it would cease investigating civil rights complaints from transgender students.

New York state officials responded with a Feb. 28 letter — written on behalf of the New York Attorney General, state Education Department and Board of Regents — reaffirming the state’s commitment to strengthening LGBTQ protections, in spite of rollbacks at the federal level.

The letter states “all three bodies find it imperative once again to remind school districts across New York State that — irrespective of the federal government’s recent announcement — they have independent duties to protect transgender students from discrimination and harassment in their schools and at all school functions.”

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