AN EDUCATION: How trans kids, allies triggered policy change

By Cynthia Prairie
2016 Telegraph Publishing LLC

ON THE COVER: GMUHS Principal Tom Ferenc holds one of the ‘Gender-Neutral’ signs replaced by ‘Restroom.’

Bruce Williams, Two Rivers Supervisory Union superintendent, explains the change in policy. Photos by Shawn Cunningham.

Bruce Williams, Two Rivers Supervisory Union superintendent, explains the change in policy. Photos by Shawn Cunningham.

The issue was resolved almost as quickly as it arose, when Two Rivers Supervisory Union Superintendent Bruce Williams announced at the Green Mountain Union High School board meeting Thursday night that “any transgender students must be allowed bathroom access to a gender-specific bathroom for the gender with which the student identifies.”

The method for achieving that will be to eliminate most single-sex, single-stall bathrooms throughout the school, making them open to everyone.

Coincidentally, the Obama administration announced on Friday that it would direct schools and colleges nationwide to ensure the safety and comfort of transgender students by allowing them to use whichever bathroom lines up with their gender identity.

How it began: Discomfort for two

The situation that brought about the change locally began last Thursday, May 5, when a student at GMUHS complained to a teacher that a transgender boy was using a middle school boys bathroom. The teacher relayed the observation to Associate Principal Mike Ripley, who was away from the school on Thursday.

Student AJ Jackson speaks to the Green Mountain Board of Directors on Thursday night.

Student AJ Jackson, who identifies as a boy, says he has always felt uncomfortable having to use girls bathrooms.

On Friday morning as he was stepping off the bus at school, 10th-grader AJ Jackson, one of five to 10 transgender kids at GMUHS, says he was approached by Ripley. “He told me to use the gender neutral or female bathroom.” AJ adds that Ripley “said the student felt uncomfortable.”

In an interview on Thursday, Ferenc  said that AJ also was asked not to use the middle school boys room in particular. Ripley declined to comment on what he said to AJ.

Ripley’s approach, AJ says, made him feel like he was “caught … all I could say was ‘OK.’ To be honest, I was crying.”

But, he adds, “I got a lot of support from my friends. They totally supported me. It was Conner (Rose) who has been my friend forever who … had the idea for the walkout. We first decided that this will make the administration listen to us. I just wanted them to know that we needed (to start) a conversation. ”

AJ says he guessed that change would come about “this year or next.”

This tall, unassuming kid with iridescent green hair says he never felt comfortable using the girls bathrooms. “I felt like a guy going into the girls room and that made me feel uncomfortable.” On the other hand, he is fine in the boys room. And as for gender-neutral designated bathrooms, “I never really thought it was taking away my identity until someone brought the issue to my attention.”  That “gender neutral” bathroom in effect de-sexes that child. And it’s separate, therefore discriminatory, AJ says.

AJ says he thought the protest would attract “maybe five kids.” The number ended up being 40.

Transgender people are those who experience a mismatch between their gender identity or gender expression, and their assigned sex. Transgender is also an umbrella term, and includes those whose gender identity is the opposite of their assigned sex (trans men and trans women), and may include people who are not exclusively masculine or feminine.
— GLAAD Media Reference

 

On Tuesday, the day after the Monday morning walkout, Principal Tom Ferenc said that the protest was no surprise to the school administration. “It was announced on Facebook,” he said.

Mike Ripley Transgender issue

Associate Principal Mike Ripley asked the protester to return to class after their interviews.

In an interview this past Thursday, Ripley said that a number of students had approached him before Monday’s protest to ask what would happen if they walked out. Ripley said he told them that he would give the students “10 to 15 minutes to talk with Mr. Williams, Mr. Ferenc and the cameras from (TV station) WCAX.” In reality, Ripley said, the process took about 30 minutes. But after WCAX left, Ripley said, he “explained to the kids that it is now time to go in. More than half of the 40 or so students went back to class.”

The remaining 18 who stayed out, he said, were given a half-day of in-school suspension and one detention.

On Tuesday, Ferenc said the protest raised awareness of this specific issue — discrimination through separate but equal. “We’ve been out in front of it (transgender issues) for three to four years. We have (at least nine) gender-neutral bathrooms.” But the protest, he said, came about because “students don’t feel (change) was moving quickly enough to suit them.”

Then on Thursday morning, AJ says he and his mother, Tracy, met with both Ferenc and Superintendent Bruce Williams. Ferenc said he was going to change the policy. “That was the best possible outcome we could hope for,” says AJ. But he had no idea it would go even further than he hoped.

Polite discussion at school board

During Thursday’s meeting, attended by about 15 students and a handful of parents,  Superintendent Williams first read from state law (9VSA § 4502(a): “An owner or operator of a place of public accommodation or an agent or employee of such owner or operator shall not, because of race, creed, color, national origin, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity of any person, refuse,withhold from or deny to that person any of the accommodations, advantages, facilities and privileges of the place of public accommodation.”

Conner Rose, center, speaks to the GMUHS board on Thursday night.

Conner Rose, center, AJ Jackson’s longtime friend, suggested the protest to bring the issue in front of the school administration.

“Our Green Mountain administration has been seeking to balance these complex factors, seeking student input in a variety of ways,” Williams continued as he recalled Monday’s walkout. Since then, he added, “we have been reconsidering our practices.”

He said that the Vermont Agency of Education had in early 2016 shared a 13-page document on best practices that said, “The use of restrooms and locker rooms by transgender students requires schools to consider … factors including … the transgender student’s preference; protecting student privacy; maximizing social integration; minimizing stigmatization; ensuring equal opportunity to participate; the student’s age and protecting the safety of the students involved.”

The floor was then opened for discussion. Connor Rose, AJ’s long-time friend, immediately thanked the administration “for this rapid change in policy.” He added that “Facebook got very heated. A lot was said on both sides,” including a death threat from a student in Connecticut wh0 Chester Police reported to authorities in that state.

Rachel Spigel

Rachel Spigel tells the school board that gender-neutral ‘is an invalidation of their trans status. To treat a trans person differently is discrimination.’

Student Rachel Spigel summed up the student protest: “Many look at the law about gender-neutral bathrooms and think they aren’t discrimination. But (gender-neutral) is an invalidation of their trans status. To treat a trans person differently is discrimination.”

AJ also stood to thank “all you guys for getting this far.” At one point, AJ’s mother, Tracy, said, “AJ has never identified as a girl. He has always been a boy. My child wants nothing to do with the girls room.”

And Mischa Greenslet, a transgender parent of two, said, “I’ve faced so much discrimination throughout the years. Civil rights starts with education in the schools.”

One mother asked if there would be special accommodation for students not comfortable with sharing a bathroom with a transgender student, to which Ferenc replied that in effect, everyone will be accommodated because, “We have nine individual bathrooms that anyone can use. Two will need to be fitted with a locking mechanism.”

Parent Julie Hance suggests that the showers and the locker rooms could be a difficult situation.

Parent Julie Hance suggests that the showers and the locker rooms could be a difficult situation.

Parent Julie Hance said, “We are dealing with an age where a boy tries to take a sneak peak in the girls’ bathroom. I have a 12-year-old son. I know it will happen.”

A couple of parents questioned the “special rights” that transgender kids were getting.

School board chair Alison Deslauriers explained that all the signs marking a bathroom “gender-neutral” have been taken down and the bathrooms – which will be single toilets – will be marked as “restrooms” for anyone to use.

When one parent brought up the possibility of sexual assault, one student replied:  “I don’t think the new policy will do anything about sexual assault. That is another problem that has nothing to do with transgender.” And another said, “Sexuality is not connected to gender identity. The two have no correlation at all.”

Board member Bruce Parks said that the conflict comes between “custom and law. Custom doesn’t always make it (an attitude) right, but it can be one of the most difficult things to change.”

Hance pointed to what may be a problem needing an expensive fix: Refitting the showers and locker rooms.

Deslauriers said that multi-stall restrooms won’t be changed before the end of the year.

And board member Hank Mauti asked, “Is the federal government going to pick up the bill for all of these plumbing projects? I don’t think so. If the federal government is going to make this ridiculous law, they should pay for it.”

The next day, Friday, May 13, the school’s annual Day of Silence to stop bullying, harassment and mistreatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, AJ says no one outside of his circle of friends really spoke to him, except this one person — a senior — “who came up to me and said ‘good job.’ ”

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About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor more than 30 years. She has worked at such publications as the Raleigh Times, the Baltimore News American, the Buffalo Courier Express, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Patuxent Publishing chain of community newspapers in Maryland. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.

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  1. Rimone says:

    The very best of luck to all the brave kids who are now treated fairly in this high school. My name is Rimone. I’m an American ex-pat, living in Europe and the UK since 2001, places in which I’ve expressed my own transgender and punk identity much easier than in NYC where I was born.

    I found the Chester Telegraph article after reading the NY Times this morning then wanting to know more about AJ Jackson’s situation. I’m very proud of him, Supervisory Union Superintendent Bruce Williams, Conner Rose, and all the transgender kids standing up for their rights as well as President Obama whose last term has been so progressive for us all.

  2. Ron Jackson says:

    I can understand both sides of the issue. No transgender individual wants to be forced to use a bathroom where they feel uncomfortable. Likewise, many straight individuals feel uncomfortable using a bathroom where some of (what they consider) the opposite sex is there.

    Replace “transgender” with “homosexual” and you have the situation I grew up with in the ’70s and ’80s. Gay rights were starting to be openly talked about and the issue of bathroom privacy would come up. The response then was “just use the stall” instead of the urinal.

    I find it a little surprising it has taken society 30+ years to come up with the real solution: single bathrooms. Yeah, large multi-stall restrooms are a great way to save plumbing costs, but they have always been a privacy issue.

    Unfortunately, the issue is hardly over. As Julie Hance noted, the locker rooms are going be a much harder fix.

  3. Corryn says:

    I think that this whole thing is absurd. Isn’t it discrimination to those straight students who know specifically AJ is a girl and feel extremely awkward using a urinal in fear a girl may come in? Or vise versa!

    This is high school, the students are ALL going through drastic changes in life called puberty. High school is not the place to combine bathrooms to add that much more stress in these young people’s lives. I attended high school with a couple of trans, and they used the sex’s bathroom as they were because legally they were females, not males. If they didn’t feel comfortable, they used the gender neutral bathrooms, not the opposite sex’s.

    AJ even states in this article that he “didn’t realize” it was effecting his identity until someone else brought it up. So why make all the bathrooms gender neutral? Why not keep the male, female and gender neutral bathrooms the way they were? Why are transgenders getting special treatment making everyone else feel uncomfortable? Don’t straight lives matter to?

    Doesn’t the 14-year-old pubescent boy urinating in the urinal have the right to urinate without pubescent fear of a girl walking in and seeing his penis? I think Target did their thing in making gender neutral bathrooms, that’s fine.

    But high school is NOT the place to put these kids in such an awkward place. It’s not fair! Trans had the option of a gender natural bathroom, why get rid of that privacy for the other 400+ kids in the school?

  4. Meshach Tourigny says:

    Well done, and I’m proud of all the young people involved for standing up. It’s not an easy thing to do. Also, it seems like it was a respectful discussion and a good example for other schools dealing with this issue. Change isn’t always easy for everyone, but equality should always be the goal.

  5. Connor Rose says:

    Fantastic article, thank all of you for helping us get this all out here. We all really appreciate it.