By COLIN FLANDERS
Starting this school year, students at all Chittenden Central Supervisory Union schools can use bathrooms and locker rooms based on their gender identity, according to superintendent Judith DeNova.
Previously, students used these spaces consistent with their biological sex.
The CCSU Board of Education approved a statement highlighting the decision in late May, which references both state and national guidance on the topic.
In March, the Vermont Agency of Education issued guidelines recommending transgender students shouldn’t be required to use a locker room or bathroom that “conflicts with the student’s gender identity.” Two months later, the federal government took it a step further.
A directive from the Obama administration said under Title IX — a 1972 law that bans sex discrimination by schools receiving federal funding — schools must allow transgender students to access facilities consistent with gender identity.
Under this mandate, schools failing to comply with the guidance could lose federal funding.
However, last week 12 states joined a lawsuit filed by the state of Texas asking a U.S. judge to block the directive, stating Title IX is being unlawfully redefined. Ten other states have separately sued over the guidelines.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court broke from its summer recess to temporarily block a court order that had allowed a transgender boy to use the boys’ bathroom, signaling the court will likely take up the case this fall.
Despite the pushback from some districts across the country, DeNova said CCSU is unwavering in its stance.
“We’re committed to a safe, non-discriminatory, supportive environment for all our students. That is a mandate. It’s the law,” DeNova said last week.
At least one CCSU parent has questioned the timing of the announcement.
“We are three weeks from school start, and no one has been notified,” wrote Kaley Smith in an email to The Essex Reporter.
Smith said she was informed of the change only after asking school administrators directly.
In another email addressed to both parents and community members, she laid out her other concerns.
Smith said the supervisory union has no policy directing students or staff members to inform the school when they use a bathroom or locker room different from their birth-assigned sex.
“This can be a day-to-day choice,” she wrote.
“Regardless of your position on this, it is only right to have ample time to be notified and to notify the students,” she continued.
DeNova said the national guidance came out less than three months ago, when the SU was wrapping up last school year. The leadership team aimed to meet in mid-July to discuss a communication plan on the issue for staff but rescheduled after Outright Vermont’s director of education Dana Kaplan, a consultant with CCSU, couldn’t attend due to a missed flight.
The meeting instead took place last week. DeNova said the SU will next alert students and parents to the changes via student handbooks, orientations and reviews of harassment and bullying protocols.
The CCSU board will discuss it at its Aug. 22 meeting, which is open to the public. CCSU’s full statement is also available on the front page of its website.
DeNova understands parents’ fear whenever their children are involved.
“I want to embrace and partner with them [to ensure] each and every child is going to be safe. It’s the hardest part of my job,” she said.
She said the national guidance has made it clear that universal bathroom access is necessary to have both a safe and non-discriminatory school setting. Her inspiration goes beyond the national guidance, however.
“It’s also a moral mandate that we create the environments all students need to be successful,” she said.
Erin Maguire, CCSU’s executive director of student support services, agreed, adding CCSU’s goal is ensuring all kids are ready and engaged. She believes worrying about where to go to the bathroom or what locker room to change in gets in the way of this goal.
Although the national conversation has focused on transgender students, everyone has privacy concerns, Maguire said.
“If any issues arise, we will sensitively manage that issue for anyone who’s uncomfortable,” she said.
As a result of the guidelines, CCSU added curtains for privacy in its locker rooms. All CCSU schools have private, single-use bathrooms as well.
School leaders can make other accommodations as long as they don’t interfere with another student’s rights, Maguire said.
“It can’t just be about one group of people or another,” she said. “We have to consider all kids. That’s really the only way to ensure that all kids feel safe and supported.”
For DeNova, cultural shifts are nothing new. She began teaching in 1974, the same year a law passed guaranteeing appropriate public education for students with disabilities.
“We were OK up until then with not even allowing kids with disabilities to enter our schools,” she said. “After 42 years in education, embracing the needs of all children in our schools has been the lifelong piece of my career.”
The issue forces educators to examine all “past traditions,” DeNova said.
“We think about really wanting to make sure that everyone has the privilege of learning and being treated in a respectful and safe way,” she said. “For schools, it’s where we teach that. How do we teach kids and our systems to be able to embrace all people?”