Cherry Hill Board of Education preparing to vote on transgender policy

The Cherry Hill Board of Education is just two affirmative votes away from formally codifying a policy on transgender students and further solidifying their rights to have equal educational opportunities.

On Jan. 26, the board will hold a vote to approve policy No. 5756, Transgender Students, on first reading. The district announced the new policy prior to last Tuesday’s board work session.

Superintendent Joe Meloche said the district has always had an anti-discriminatory policy for transgender students, but the board felt it was important to put a procedure in writing.

“(The policy) makes it clear for everyone about our position,” he said.

In the draft policy, students are permitted to use the facilities such as restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity. Students will have the right to determine their own gender identity and declare if they are gender nonconforming. The policy describes gender nonconforming as a student whose gender expression differs from stereotypical expectations, such as “feminine” boys, “masculine” girls and those perceived as androgynous. Parents are permitted to advocate for younger students who are too young to advocate for themselves.

For the school district to recognize a student’s asserted gender identity, the student’s parent or guardian must submit a letter to the superintendent stating the student is gender nonconforming. If the parent or guardian does not consent, the superintendent will hold a meeting with the parent and student to determine how the district will recognize the student’s gender identity.

Once a student’s asserted gender identity is confirmed, they will be permitted to access restrooms and locker rooms corresponding with their new identity. The student will also participate in physical education classes and comply with school dress codes consistent with their gender identity. The district will honor requests from the student for a different name or pronoun.

To participate in intramural programs or interscholastic athletics, transgender students must meet the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association’s eligibility requirements.

The policy puts the responsibility of determining gender identity into the student’s hands. The board cannot question or disregard a student’s claims. The superintendent can question a student’s gender identity only if “there is a credible basis for believing the student’s gender identity is being asserted for some improper purpose.”

Meloche said the policy is no different than what many districts in New Jersey are putting in place. The policy complies with New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination, which states a person is permitted to use a sex-segregated restroom or locker room they feel is consistent with their gender identity or expression. Restrooms and locker rooms in public schools fall under this law.

“It is a requirement that we meet the needs and don’t discriminate against anybody for any reason,” Meloche said.

The school district worked with Strauss Esmay on the transgender policy, as it does with other policies. Meloche said the policy was crafted after a year of conversation with administrators, the board’s policy and legislation committee and community members. The district also looked at districts implementing similar policies.

“We wanted to take different points of view into consideration,” Meloche said.

The district announced the draft policy on Jan. 8, more than two weeks prior to its formal introduction. Meloche has also held meetings with the Cherry Hill Zone PTA to get parents’ input.

“We want to provide as much information as possible to the community and be as transparent as we possibly can,” he said.

One advocacy group feels Cherry Hill Public Schools’ policy doesn’t go far enough. Garden State Equality, a New Jersey advocacy and education organization for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community, disagrees with the district’s requirement of a letter from a parent stating the student is gender nonconforming.

“What we’ve advised is schools should not be in the business of outing a student to the parents,” said Aaron Potenza, director of programs for Garden State Equality.

Potenza said there could potentially be a transgender student whose parents do not agree with their child’s gender identity. This could lead to issues when a school district asks for a parent to confirm their child is gender nonconforming and can cause considerable harm to the student.

“Hopefully, you do want to work with the parents. That’s the best outcome,” Potenza said. “But we don’t want to require a letter from the parents.”

Garden State Equality advises districts to use a policy where a letter from a parent is not required for a student to be considered gender nonconforming. This is based on a policy the National Center for Lesbian Rights and United States Department of Education helped create for a school district in California last year.

“They basically say, on a case-by-case basis, you have to talk to the student about whether it’s safe to talk to the parent before you talk to the parent,” Potenza said. “It’s not that we want the school to do things behind the parent’s back. We want to make teachers and administrators aware that it’s a potentially dangerous situation.”

Meloche said the district requires a letter so parents realize what is happening with their child and are not confused when their child is referred to as a different gender.

“We want to make sure there’s no mystery if a name change is being used or a different pronoun is being used,” Meloche said.

Potenza said Garden State Equality does support all of the other facets of the policy and said it is a positive to see school districts in New Jersey passing policies specifically for transgender students.

Meloche said there hasn’t been a lot of reaction to the policy from the community, and nearly all of the feedback so far has been positive. There was also little discussion from the board when the policy was brought up at its Jan. 12 work session meeting.

One question the district has addressed has been the comfort level of students changing for gym classes. Meloche said children being uncomfortable changing in the locker room is not new to schools, and the district will continue to handle it as it has in the past. The draft policy does allow the district to make available an alternative changing area if a transgender student requests it.

“It’s something that the schools have dealt with for years and will continue to deal with,” Meloche said.

Residents can view the entire draft policy and a frequently asked questions sheet at the district’s website, www.chclc.org. If the policy is approved on first reading Jan. 26, it will be on the board’s agenda again for second reading and final adoption in February.

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