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Pittsburgh Public Schools Board Unanimously Passes Nondiscrimination Transgender Policy

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh Public Schools board members from left to right, Sylvia Wilson, Terry Kennedy, Lynda Wrenn and Thomas Sumpter and the five other board members unanimously passed a nondiscrimination transgender policy Wednesday.

The Pittsburgh Public Schools Board unanimously approved a policy Wednesday night that will allow transgender and gender expansive students, those who identify outside of gender categories, to use pronouns, names and bathrooms they identify with in the coming school year.

Board member Moira Kaleida who represents District 6, covering neighborhoods such as Mt. Washington and Brookline, said the policy is a step in the right direction for the district's most vulnerable students.

“The next steps will be for principals and administrators, security guards, nurses to get fully trained throughout the summer," Kaleida said. "That’s why it was important we get it passed as soon as possible. Not only to be in compliance with the law, but so that we can start doing the appropriate training needed for all the staff in the schools.”

The policy now brings the district into compliance with state and federal standards for bullying, harassment and discrimination. Kaleida said she initiated the district plan and based the policy on one implemented by Brashear High School in the 2014-15 school year.

Board member Cynthia Falls, who represents District 7, including Allentown, South Side and Mt. Oliver, voted in favor of the policy, but had a hang up. She said opposing viewpoints were not heard during the board's public workshop on the topic in May.

“I don’t believe the forums were equal,” she said. “So I am voting ‘yes’ because it’s a federal regulation, but I do think that we need to do due diligence to people who have different viewpoints.”

Falls was the only board member to comment on the policy during Wednesday’s meeting.

No changes will be made to bathrooms as a result of the policy, but will ensure students can use the bathroom they feel most comfortable in without medical proof of a transition or parental consent. Kaleida said schools will need to make private bathroom available to students who prefer that option, as well.

The policy also requires teachers and staff to use a student’s preferred pronoun and name, also without a legal name change or parent consent and indicates that students have a right to privacy, including keeping transgender status private at school. Teachers under the policy are not allowed to disclose that information to parents or other students without permission from the student.

Though PPS parent Steven Abate said the policy was written by people who care about the students, he said he fears it could endanger the ones it’s meant to protect.

“I’m not worried about my daughter being in a bathroom or a locker room with a bunch of boys dressed as girls or transgender girls,” Abate said. “I’m more concerned about the transgender boy who insists on going into the locker room with a group of boys. Does that group of boys … do they see a boy or do they see a girl?” 

Abate was the only person to speak against the policy during the board’s monthly public hearing on Monday. He said he wanted a revision to mandate written support from parents of students who plan to change their identity under the new policy.

“If my kid was wearing a shirt with some vulgar statement on it, they would call me and say, 'Hey, your kid is wearing a bad shirt, we’re going to call you and let you know,'" he said. “If my kid or someone else’s kid that they don’t know about shows up at school wearing a dress, they should know about it.”

Several people said the new policy pushes the district in the right direction.

Andi Pilecki, a parent of a 15-year-old transgender student, told the board the policy wouldn’t just be good practice, but life-saving. She said that LGBTQ students are at heightened risk of bullying.

“Transgender people have some of the highest rates of attempted suicide in the country,” she said. “As a therapist committed to serving this community, these numbers are staggering. But, as a parent they are absolutely terrifying.”

TJ Hurt graduated from Taylor Allderdice High School in 2015. They said teachers would sometimes ignore a student’s preferred name and use a student’s legal name during role call. Hurt said that, and other acts were forms of microagression that made them feel insignificant.

“The reality we live in is that we are afraid,” they said to the board, “afraid to go to school without protection, afraid to ask for help, afraid to exist as humans. The reality we live in is that too many trans teens are being subjected to violence by their peers. Too many trans teens are suicidal. Too many trans teens are being told they don’t deserve to live.”

Hurt said as a student, they would have wanted more open conversation and workshops about being transgender and what it means to be gender expansive.

Cee Jay Levine was a long-time substitute teacher in the district until 2012. Urging the board to approve the policy, he described an experience discussing basic genetics with eighth graders. Levine, a transgender man, said he was not out during his time at PPS for fear of losing the position.

A student asked what makes a person a boy or girl. Levine said he answered with X and Y chromosomes and the student followed with questions about “hermaphrodites," “transsexual” and “he-she.”

“I asked her to think about it like this, ‘Imagine you were born in the body of a boy. In your heart and mind, you know you’re a girl, but because of how your body looks, society tells you that you are a boy and you can only do certain things,’” he said.

Levine said the student who initiated the conversation replied with, “that would suck.”

“As you can see,” Levine said, “your students already get it.”

The policy also covers areas such as medical treatments or procedures, dress code, physical education classes and interscholastic athletics.  

The board was also set to vote on a resolution to implement standards for vetting executive positions but postponed that vote to give the policy committee more time to work on language.

The resolution posted on the board's agenda earlier in the day and later removed came a week after the board hired an independent investigator to vet newly hired superintendent Anthony Hamlet's resume. Multiple media reports have cited incidences of plagiarism and inflated figures in Hamlet's resume he used to get the position. 

**Updated 12:48 p.m. Monday June 27, 2016 to clarify Steven Abate spoke at the Monday, June 20, 2016 PPS Public Hearing. 

Nondiscrimination Transgender and Gender Expansive Students Policy Draft