The inclusion of just six words — gender identity, sexual orientation, gender expression — in a Kalispell Public Schools non-discrimination policy has elicited a response from the public.
“I know how important it is to change the Kalispell Public Schools nondiscrimination policy. I grew up in the Kalispell school system and came out as a lesbian in Glacier High School,” Miranda Hoffman told the school board at a June 23 work session. “I experienced lots of mistreatment myself.”
Hoffman, a 2014 Glacier graduate, was one of several people addressing the board about the proposed policy change.
The policy elicited vocal support and emotional, personal experiences from lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people and allies at the work session.
The wording is part of a recommended revision to school policy on Equal Education, Nondiscrimination and Sex Equity suggested by the Montana School Boards Association.
The phrase “gender expression” is the school board’s alteration of the association’s original recommendation of “gender identity, sexual orientation or failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity,” in addition to “gender identity” and “sexual orientation.”
Some trustees interpreted the phrase “failure to conform” as having negative connotations.
Current school policy required by law outlines that the district provide equal educational opportunities and activities to all students regardless of things such as race, color, sex, religious belief and disability, among others.
The issue first came up at a January board of trustees meeting. The board organized a subcommittee to look at what the revisions might mean for the district and for students.
The work session provided an opportunity for public input. The policy will receive two more readings before approval.
Bree Sutherland, executive director of the Gender Expansion Project of Missoula and a former Flathead High School student, became emotional when talking about personal struggles expressing her gender identity in high school.
“As a graduate of Flathead High School, as a student that has walked these halls, I really know the sting of not being accepted, of not having an environment that says it’s OK to be me,” Sutherland said, her eyes welling up with tears.
“I chose to hide. I chose not to express myself. I struggled throughout school with performance, was labeled with every learning disorder possible,” Sutherland said with a quavering laugh, pausing to regain her composure. “And what it came down to is just that I needed to express myself a little differently. I didn’t feel comfortable doing that here because there was no talk of gender diversity; there was no talk of gender outside of male and female.”
Sutherland said she didn’t feel it was safe to talk to anyone at school or in the community.
“I didn’t talk about that I had attempted suicide seven times while I was within the walls of School District 5. I didn’t talk to anyone because I was afraid,” Sutherland said. “Creating an inclusive non-discrimination policy will set a policy that it is OK to be different, it is OK to be diverse and it is OK to be LGBTQQI [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersexual].”
Sutherland said it wasn’t until she moved to Missoula that she felt she was finally in an accepting environment to transition from male to female and started excelling in school, which led to her current position as an executive director.
Sutherland said the policy doesn’t cater to any one group or provide special rights: “This is providing a clear message that students can be accepted, and accurately and fully express themselves to be the best student they can be.”
She said the updated policy would only set a precedent that the district supports its students.
Representatives from Love Lives Here in the Flathead Valley, Montana Human Rights Network and Pride Foundation also addressed the board.
Various letters submitted to trustees stated anecdotal experiences where former and current students had been the subjects of derogatory language such as “faggot” or “gay” in front of staffers who failed to intervene.
Glacier Art teacher CJ Cummings supported those statements with his own observations. The revised policy clearly defines the obligations of teachers and administrators to intervene in these situations.
“Some of us are not meeting that obligation or responsibility,” Cummings said. “I have seen other responsible adults ignore these things and I think this is a step towards everybody gets to feel safe in our schools.”
Only one audience member, Derek Skees of Kalispell, spoke against adding the phrases “gender identity” and “gender expression,” claiming they are mental disorders akin to bulimia or anorexia. Skees cited controversial research from Paul McHugh, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
“What are we going to do, folks, when mental disorders now become part of a nondiscrimination component? I beg you, this has become a national issue — I suggest extremely politicized — based on a narrow viewpoint,” Skees said.
A couple of parents renewed concerns about what the policy revision would mean for their children when using a restroom or locker room. One mother of two boys said she wanted to know what would happen if a girl who identified as a boy wanted to use the boys locker room.
Trustees said if the issue arose it would be addressed, but for now they could not predict all the unknowns. Trustee Jack Fallon and board chairman Joe Brenneman said they and the community would have to trust administrators to handle situations appropriately.
Trustee Steve Davis said the current nondiscrimination policy covers everybody. Davis questioned if adding a specific group opens the floodgates.
“If we’re going to move the line in the sand, where are we going to move it to so that we don’t forget the next group coming in?” Davis asked. “I’d hate to list specific groups when you can list it generically.”
Trustee Mary Ruby said she thought the suggested language was encompassing.
“It’s specific enough to help everybody out, but not so specific that it excludes anybody, and I think that’s what we’re looking for in a good policy is just to get enough arms wrapped around it so that kids are protected,” Ruby said.
Trustee Don Murray said he understood adding the six words would be controversial, yet felt strongly enough it would have an impact on students.
“I know there will be people who will criticize us,” Murray said. “I’m convinced this is the right thing to do. Children who fall into these categories will know we have done this, that this academic institution has stood up for them and wants to ensure this school is a safe place for them where they can fulfill their academic potential.
“I’ve seen studies where staff that have been given policies that protect these specific set of students are significantly more likely to stand up for those kids,” Murray said.
Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.