The Portland Board of Education on Tuesday night unanimously approved what’s considered one of Maine’s most comprehensive transgender policies, requiring staff training, using a student’s preferred name and personal pronoun, and taking the student’s side at school if there is disagreement with a parent’s wishes.
“This is a watershed moment in the state of Maine,” said attorney Mary Bonauto, a Portland parent who helped the school board craft the policy. Bonauto, the Maine lawyer who successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court for same-sex couples to have the right to marry, has two high school-aged children in the Portland school district.
Portland is one of about a half-dozen Maine school districts that have adopted transgender policies. The first, in Millinocket, was adopted in early 2015 soon after the Maine Supreme Judicial Court issued the nation’s first state court ruling affirming the right of a transgender student to use a bathroom corresponding with her gender identity.
The policies are similar, and many are based on boilerplate language suggested by the law firm Drummond Woodsum, which represents most school districts, and the Maine School Management Association. The language reflects an interpretation of the court ruling by the Maine Human Rights Commission.
In general, the policies say students should be addressed by their chosen names and pronouns, and be allowed to use bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity. The policies also define terms such as sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and transgender, and address student privacy issues.
Portland’s policy uses more expansive language to make clear that it applies not just to transgender students, but students who have wider gender identities. The policy also requires staff training, and includes language recommended by the Maine Human Rights Commission spelling out that the district should “abide by the wishes of the student” regarding his or her gender identity at school if there is a disagreement with the student’s parents or legal guardian.
“This policy is about knocking down walls between our students and their learning and their well-being,” said Jeanne Crocker, the district’s assistant superintendent.
Several members of the public spoke in favor of the policy during the public comment period. No one spoke in opposition.
“Thank you for a policy that is truly reflective of our priorities. It took courageous leadership to make this happen,” said Kathie Marquis-Girard, the assistant principal at Portland High School. “I can’t tell you what this will mean for so many students.”
Exact figures on how many transgender students are in a particular district or statewide are not available from state sources, but about 80 middle and high schools in Maine have student clubs formed around gender identity and sexual orientation, according to Equality Maine.
Superintendent Xavier Botana, who was hired after the planning for the policy was already underway, acknowledged that he was initially unsure about it.
“On a personal note, this is a very significant policy for me,” he told the board. “I’ve come to understand the significance of this issue late in life. I grew up with a fixed notion of gender and the idea of a fluid gender was foreign to me.” He said working on developing the policy over the last year has helped him to overcome “misconceptions” and that with his new understanding, “I am better prepared to meet the needs of all of our students.”
Cultural competence, he said, “is not easy, but it is what we need to do as educators.”
During the board discussion, several members were visibly moved as they spoke in support of the policy. Board member Sarah Thompson struggled as she read a letter from a mother of a now-deceased transgender student who was bullied and not supported by her school. Holly Seeliger, who led the committee that crafted the policy, wiped away tears as others spoke.
“This is truly what our work is about: putting students first and making sure students are supported emotionally. Lives are on the line,” said Jenna Vendil, also wiping away tears.
Maine has been at the forefront of the national discussion around transgender student rights. In 2014, Maine had the nation’s first state court ruling that affirmed the right of a transgender student to use the bathroom corresponding with her gender identity.
The issue began in 2007, when Nicole Maines, then a transgender fifth-grader at Asa Adams Elementary School in Orono, was instructed to use a staff bathroom after a grandparent of another student, a boy, complained that Maines was allowed to use the girls’ bathroom.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled in Maines’ favor in December 2014.
In January 2016, the human rights commission issued guidance to reflect its interpretation of the Maines ruling on the Maine Human Rights Act.
The guidance says schools should allow any student with a “sincerely held” gender identity to be recognized in all ways as that gender, including using bathrooms, playing sports, being addressed by a preferred name and pronoun, being allowed to dress as preferred, and in the event of a conflict with parents’ wishes, to abide by the student’s wishes while at school.
Other districts that have adopted a transgender policy include Mount Desert, Kennebunk and Scarborough.