Supporters of gender inclusion policy ask St. Louis Park School Board to take action

Supporters of a potential St. Louis Park School District gender inclusion policy have urged the school board to take action.

More than a year ago, board members met with staff from The Blake School to discuss how the private school has adjusted to contemporary views on gender.

However, the board has not moved to implement a gender inclusion policy yet, leading members of the Allies of St. Louis Park group and the Gender Sexuality Alliance at St. Louis Park High School to urge them to approve such a policy before the next school year begins.

The proponents of such a policy presented the board April 24 with a petition containing 641 signatures, including those of U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, DFL-Minneapolis, and state Rep. Peggy Flanagan, DFL-St. Louis Park, in support of a gender inclusion measure.

“A Gender Inclusion policy would address the inequities some students, including intersex, transgender, and gender nonconforming students, confront as they navigate a system designed using a gender binary model,” a statement from supporters says.

Faculty and staff members should have more professional training on such issues and should be prohibited from “outing” such students to other school staff, students and their family members, the statement continues.

“In accordance with the proposed policy, the District will respect all students’ gender identity and gender expression by honoring the right of students to be identified and addressed by their preferred name and pronoun and within academic programing, prohibit the separation of students and/or curricular materials based upon gender unless it serves as a compelling pedagogical tool,” the statement reads.

It continues, “The district should also provide all students the opportunity to participate in co-curricular and extracurricular activities in a manner consistent with their gender identity, including but not limited to intramural and interscholastic athletics while (providing) all students with access to facilities that align with students’ gender identity.”

Elise Bargman, president of the alliance, said some people probably will oppose the policy but that she believes the community supports the measure given the number of people who signed the petition. The St. Louis Park Human Rights Commission also approved a resolution supporting the petition.

“There are a lot of people who support this and will stand behind you on this issue as soon as you take a stand and get this policy revised and passed once and for all,” Bargman said. “Listen, I know that the school district supports this policy and one of the reasons you’ve been holding off is you want to do it right. But please believe me when I tell you that this policy cannot wait another year.”

She pointed to data reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year that indicates that 29 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual students had attempted suicide during the previous year. The centers reported, “More studies are needed to better understand the risks for suicide among transgender youth. However, one study with 55 transgender youth found that about 25% reported suicide attempts.”

Bargman said, “And as much as we might want to think otherwise, I can tell you right now that those numbers are just as high right here in St. Louis Park. Over the past four years, I have talked dozens of kids out of suicide. We need this policy now.”

She noted she has offered two professional development training sessions for teachers on LGBT issues.

“The thing is teachers want to be supportive of their LGBT students. They just don’t know how,” Bargman said. “Both times, I had many teachers come up to me afterwards and tell me they learned a lot and wished they could have had more trainings on these issues.”

Matthew Loftus, who described himself as an openly gay and transgender student at St. Louis Park High School, said transgender students “are harassed and robbed of their opportunity to learn.”

He said, “A child shouldn’t have to defend themselves from a school staff member who’s curious or need to advocate for themselves just to be decently respected or allowed to use the restroom corresponding with their gender identity. We deserve to be respected by our teachers and our peers.”

Loftus said he has been lucky that he has a supportive environment at home but that many transgender students do not.

“My boyfriend has been denied decent human respect from teachers and even his school counselors because he lacks the support of his parents,” Loftus said. “Trans kids go through hell just to be comfortable in their own skin, not including the harm their peers inflict upon them. We have an incredibly high suicide rate, and our schools need to be valuing the safety of our students over the comfort of our teachers.”

His mother, Amy Gildemeister, said Loftus, currently a freshman, came out as transgender when he was 11 years old.

“That was really shocking, but we as his family got on board 100 percent to support it,” Gildemeister said.

An administrator at St. Louis Park Middle School gave Loftus a pass to come to see him at any time, as well as a pass to the nurse’s office to use the school’s only gender-neutral restroom, Gildemeister said.

“In gym class, everything was sorted by gender, so it created a lot of panic for him,” Gildemeister said. “The solution for Matthew was not to participate, and they made arrangements for him to make up that credit with another class.”

In eighth grade, the administration told Loftus he could not use the men’s restroom at the beginning of the year but allowed him to do so by the end of the year, Gildemeister said.

At the high school, Gildemeister said, “Teachers still misgender him and use his birth name occasionally. People don’t respect his pronouns on a regular basis. He’s been called an ‘it,’ an abomination against God’s natural plan – so many things that he hears, but he wears earbuds in the hallway to drown out any negative comments.”

She added, “He does represent a small population at the school, but he deserves to be himself and to feel safe going to school because he matters. Other trans students matter. By delaying implementing a policy, it feels as though the school does not think he matters.”

Zaylore Stout, a member of the Allies of St. Louis Park, noted that he and his partner moved to St. Louis Park because of its tradition of inclusion.

“Now is the time to act,” Stout said. “This is the time to be bold and do what you know is right. St. Louis Park is not Anoka. St. Louis Park is not Virginia, Minnesota, and St. Louis Park is definitely not North Carolina.”

Stout added, “We’re lucky in regards to not having any issues and not losing any of our fine youth, but if we wait another year who knows what will happen.”

Susan Niz, founder of the Allies of St. Louis Park, said, “Without protections and support, these kids suffer. While students are extremely supportive, resourceful and protective of each other, it is not the responsibility of high school students to counsel other students out of suicide or to train faculty and staff on transgender issues. It is the responsibility of teachers, counselors and staff to provide resources and support that keep kids protected.”

Patrick Djerf, a freshman at the high school, told the school board, “As a straight and cisgender boy, I receive a lot of privilege but I’m here to help support the trans people in our high school. I think it’s important that we create a safe learning environment at school to make sure that everyone has equal opportunities to learn.”

He said he has witnessed teachers projecting the birth names of transgender friends onto a screen and that a friend had to talk to each substitute teacher before class because school records contained the student’s birth name rather than the name the student used.

“We can and must do better for the trans kids at our school to ensure that all kids feel safe here to learn,” Djerf said.

Denise Konen said her oldest son, who is now an adult, left St. Louis Park High School to go to Perpich Center for Arts Education in Golden Valley because he did not feel safe.

“He felt like if he joined the Straight-Gay Alliance that he would be known, and then people would make more fun of him because he’d seen that happen,” Konen said. “So, he chose to go to Perpich school. I believe that we’re changing and changed at St. Louis Park, and I don’t understand why we wouldn’t have a policy to show how accepting we are here.”

Superintendent’s response

Supt. Rob Metz said the district had begun the process of learning about the issue.

“In this case, the transgender issue is very complicated,” Metz said. “There’s lots of parts to it, lots of pieces, so there’s a lot of learning that has to take place.”

The board typically seeks to find a model from the Minnesota School Boards Association when considering a new policy, but the board does not have a model on the topic, Metz said.

“Not only don’t they have one, they’re recommending not writing one,” Metz said. “They’re not planning on writing one for the time being.”

Metz said the district had “done some homework” in that he had met with students, met with leaders of other districts and talked with representatives of the school boards association. However, he said he had not presented the school board with a draft policy.

“I’ve met with students and they showed me something that they would like a draft policy to look like, but the board hasn’t seen it yet,” Metz said.

He thanked the speakers for sharing their views.

“You are helping move this process along,” Metz said. “I wanted you to know it had already begun and has a ways to go. This one is complicated and it’s going to take some more steps.”

He added, “It’s going to take us awhile, but we’ll keep going.”

Contact Seth Rowe at [email protected]