Schools struggle to cater to gender-confused students

From the Wisconsin State Journal

By Molly Beck

One day in eighth grade, Mason Sonnenberg “finally came to realize ‘Aha, you’re probably a boy.’ ”

Mason said it was when puberty hit that he started feeling more and more comfortable with growing feelings of masculinity — despite biological changes underway in his female body.

Until that realization, “It was kind of like putting a puzzle piece in the wrong way,” he said. “It became more and more comfortable to be a male.”


Now a 17-year-old senior at Oshkosh West High School, Mason now identifies as male and is among a handful of students in the Oshkosh district who have prompted the school board to address private issues turned very public: What restroom should he use? Where does he change for gym class? Would Mason play for the boys or girls basketball team?

Across Wisconsin, school districts are seeking to codify rules for transgender students as students assert themselves more and as school districts across the country are being challenged by students, their parents, advocacy groups and the federal government to eliminate practices that discriminate on the basis of gender identity.

Doing so can spark a sensitive debate that touches on student privacy, religious beliefs and gender identity.

“This is certainly the most involved issue” that Chris VanderHeyden, Menasha School District superintendent, said he’s had to deal with in the three decades he has worked in public schools.

“Trying to get your head around what it means to be transgender — that’s what we had to do — that’s a tough piece to get to,” he said. “That’s where the challenge lies. If your beliefs and religion doesn’t allow for that, then you’re never going to get there. Sometimes we have to look beyond that and say ‘OK what’s best for this child?’”

Controversy erupted last month after the Mount Horeb Primary Center canceled a reading of “I am Jazz,” a book about a transgender girl, after objections from a conservative religious group.

The reading was intended to show support for a 6-year-old student at the school who had just transitioned from a boy to a girl. But the Liberty Counsel, acting on behalf of what it said were “concerned parents,” threatened to sue the district. The group said the planned discussion violated parents’ constitutional right “to direct the upbringing of their children” and what it called their First Amendment right to refer to a person by his or her biological gender.

Nearly 600 people turned out Wednesday for a public reading of the book in support of the girl and her family.

The spotlight has also been placed on transgender students because of legislation introduced recently by Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, and Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, that would ban transgender students from using bathrooms and locker rooms assigned to the gender with which they identify. It would also require school districts to provide separate accommodations for transgender students. About 300 people attended a recent hearing on the bill.

The legislation could put Wisconsin at odds with the U.S. Department of Education, which has asserted in cases in Virginia and Illinois that policies like the bill seeks to implement violate transgender students’ civil rights.

For Mason, the simple act of choosing a restroom has huge implications for his identity and self-esteem.

“Being forced to use the wrong restroom is kind of like being put on display for everyone,” he said. “It’s humiliating and terrifying and constantly reminding me society doesn’t accept my identity and they view it as wrong.”

Discussion of the issue

For years school districts largely handled accommodations for transgender students in unofficial ways, said Brian Juchems, senior director of education and policy at LGBTQ advocacy group GSAFE, which mostly serves south-central Wisconsin.

But in the last couple of years “there really has been an explosion of discussion” because of federal rulings related to job discrimination based on gender identity and the emergence of transgender people in popular culture.

Juchems said nearly 70 Wisconsin school districts have policies prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity, but just a few have explicit policies on how that plays out in use of bathrooms, locker rooms and on sports teams.

In 2013, the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletics Association passed a policy that allows transgender students who identify as male to participate on male sports teams only if they have begun testosterone therapy. The policy allows transgender students who identify as female to participate on female sports teams only if they have been medically documented as having undergone testosterone suppression therapy for one year.

Dan Rossmiller, lobbyist for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said the organization hasn’t developed guidance for school districts but works with officials when requested.

The Department of Public Instruction has included language around discrimination on the basis of gender identity in its model anti-bullying policy available to schools to use for their own schools.

‘Sensitive to all sides’ After receiving a complaint from a transgender student, VanderHeyden’s district enacted policies that allow transgender students to use their preferred bathrooms. But he said the locker room is handled on a case-by-case basis.

In Middleton, every school in the district now has at least one unisex restroom in all schools. But the policies surrounding accommodations for transgender students are still being refined.

“How do you create an environment where transgender students feel welcome and supported while also supporting the concerns other students — or their parents — might have?” said Middleton School District spokesman Perry Hibner. “We want to be thoughtful in whatever solution or solutions we come up with and be sensitive to all sides of the matter.”

At East High School in the Madison School District, the school’s first gender-neutral bathroom outfitted with four stalls and two sinks opened this school year available to any student.

Aden Haley-Lock, a freshman transgender male, said some transgender students at East appreciate being able to use that bathroom if they aren’t ready to use facilities assigned to their preferred gender.

In the Madison School District, transgender students have access to the restrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their gender identity, if that is their choice. The district’s policy states that if a staff member or classmate objects, the district will make other accommodations for the person who complained.

Policy efforts failed Officials in the Sparta School District faced significant backlash trying to implement a policy similar to Menasha’s.

There, superintendent John Hendricks’ proposal to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms assigned to the gender with which they identify prompted phone calls, letters and hours of debate at school board meetings.

Hendricks said he asked his school board in 2014 to make the rules after a high school teacher asked how to handle the matter if it ever came up. The school board’s policy committee backed the proposal.

When the proposed new rule reached the full board, the calls started coming.

“It was meeting a lot of resistance from a core group of people. In my heart I don’t believe they represented the majority of people, but the majority of people aren’t going to come out and put themselves in public,” Hendricks said.

State and national groups on both sides of the issue got involved. After months of packed school board meetings and media scrutiny, the board tabled the idea and there aren’t plans to renew the discussion, Hendricks said.

Andrew Buhrow, a 71-year-old former Baptist church pastor, was one of the most vocal opponents of Hendricks’ proposed policy, saying it was immoral.

“To me I look at it Biblically. It’s a perversion of how God made people,” he said.

He said the proposed policy wouldn’t protect all students’ privacy.

“The problem is I know how young fellas think,” he said. “And the big joke would be (to) dare each other to do something and choose to go to the women’s bathroom on a dare. And it could be very traumatic for a young girl in a situation like that and I guess people aren’t thinking about those people at all.”

Bathroom bill at issue Kremer said the bill he introduced with Nass was drafted in response to a number of incidents across the state that have forced districts to navigate these issues without official state guidance. The bill hasn’t been put to a vote, but it is opposed by groups that represent public schools and school boards and created some unease in schools.

Michael Hernandez, East High principal, said even if the bill passes, he would push to keep the school’s “all-gender” bathroom open.

“My job is to be an advocate for all students so I need to do what’s right for students here,” said Hernandez. “I’m not going to be willfully insubordinate but there’s times you’ll have to take a stand.”

VanderHeyden said the bill could put school districts in a position of policing bathrooms and tracking students’ gender.

“How do we possibly check who is using which restrooms? If I didn’t know the child looked particularly male or female — how do we enforce this?” he said. “And then it sets us up to be sued? That’s not a great place for us to be.”


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