SDR introduces gender equity policy
Would be ‘incredibly positive step’ says RHS associate principal
By Eileen Persike
Belonging, courage, empowerment, equity. These are things Rhinelander High School Associate Principal Kari Strebig wants all district students to experience. Research has shown, Strebig said, that a child’s potential to learn is significantly increased when they feel safe, supported and connected to their school environment.
However, results of the 2019 Wisconsin Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) for Rhinelander High School show that not all students feel that way.
The survey shows 37% of RHS LGBTQ youth feel they belong in school, compared to 63% of their cisgender (person whose gender identity matches their birth sex), heterosexual (cishet) peers. Ninety-one percent of LGBTQ youth have mental health concerns resulting from LGBTQ-based “bullying, harassment, marginalization and violent victimization” in school.
Additionally, the survey found that RHS LGBTQ students are significantly more likely than their cishet peers to have suicidal ideations and self-harm because of the lack of protective factors for these students.
The School District of Rhinelander administration wants to change that.
A Gender Equity policy put forth for consideration at the Rhinelander School Board Operations and Strategic Planning Committee April 12 aims to instill specific provisions to support LGBTQ students.
“Proactively creating a school environment, including policies, practices, and procedures, that protects and supports all children – but especially those who have been historically marginalized – is a moral and ethical obligation and responsibility of all school districts,” Strebig said. “It is also the most significant improvement that schools can make to support their LGBTQ children.”
The policy, in part, reads “…to foster inclusive and welcoming learning environments that are free from discrimination, harassment and bullying regardless of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression (including transgender and gender nonconforming students).”
“The district’s gender policy is an incredibly positive step in the direction of equity for all kids,” Strebig said. “It proactively protects our transgender, non-binary, and gender diverse children throughout the district, ensuring that the promise and right to a high-quality education is kept for them, too.”
Maggie Peterson, district director of learning support, said the district is already doing things to support students that are transgender, gender non-conforming.
“However, we would like to make sure those practices are consistent across the district and that we specifically address this unique population of students,” Peterson said.
At the meeting, committee member David Holperin said such a policy is unnecessary.
“We support all students now,” Holperin said. “If we move forward with a policy like this, as it’s structured – and I get it – but I wonder where it ends, which is my second question, where does this end? There will always be more things to add into a policy that already exists.”
Where the policy would be unique, Peterson replied, would be in the administrative guidelines that support it.
“While we have a policy that protects against the bullying or harassment of students, we wanted to make a proactive and specific commitment to ensuring that the district supports efforts to ensure that schools are safe and inclusive learning environments for all students, family members, and school staff, including those who are transgender or gender diverse,” Peterson said. “This will create standard practices around planned supports for students, pronoun use, student records and best practices.”
The draft policy concludes with, “…this policy is intended to facilitate compliance with district policy, as well as state and federal laws that prohibits discrimination, harassment and bullying; to provide professional development to school staff regarding gender identity issues; and to create safe and supportive learning and working environments.”
Board member Ron Lueneberg, the only other person on the committee in attendance, said he shares Holperin’s concerns.
“I felt we have some redundancy here as far as what’s already covered in state and federal law as well as district policy,”
Lueneberg said. “I think it’s repetitive of what we have. I understand Maggie’s points and so forth, but like you, I think we’re both in similar viewpoint that it would be repetitive to have a policy like this.”
Strebig, who was not at the meeting, noted that if school policies are not “purposefully inclusive,” the potential exists that a “real child” will be mentally, emotionally, psychologically or even physically harmed.
“I am honored to work with many of our transgender, non-binary, and gender diverse kids in the high school, and as the parent to a transgender son, I know firsthand the harmful and dangerous impact that an unwelcoming environment can have on a child; as a mother, there is real heartbreak and pain in seeing your transgender child unable to live authentically and wonderfully as themselves,” she said.
The committee, which is tasked with reviewing district policies and forwarding them to the full board for action, tabled the policy discussion until its May meeting.