The rights of transgender people have become a national discussion in the recent years, leading to President Obama passing bathroom mandates for public schools in May.
The River Falls School District was ahead of the game.
On Oct. 19 of last year, the school board passed a 411, anti-discrimination policy, that addresses the rights of students who identify differently from societal expectations of gender based at birth.
The first part of the policy regards the use of bathrooms.
The policy states, “All students, including transgender students, are allowed to use bathrooms that correspond with the student's gender identity. District schools are encouraged to provide one or more easily accessible unisex single-stall bathrooms for use by any student desiring privacy, regardless of the reason.”
By this policy, students who were born biologically female, for example, but identify as boys, are allowed to use the men’s bathroom, or will have access to a unisex bathroom.
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Other parts of the policy discuss the use of preferred gender pronouns, gender based athletic inclusion, bullying and harassment.
Superintendent Jamie Benson said that these policies were necessary for the school district to make learning environments comfortable for all students. He said there’ve been at least four instances of students identifying as transgender, leading to these policies.
“We simply knew that it was a need that our district had,” Benson said. “The prevalence of transgender student issues has been on an increase, and I would say knowing that, we need to be cultural and educate ourselves better around some of these issues, and have policies that support how we as a district feel.
“It should sensitively and appropriately manage any and all of our students, whether they’re transgender or otherwise.”
Despite being such a hotly debated subject nationally, Benson said there was little dissent from the school board or community when these rules were put in place.
“We generally look at sample policies, we obtain ideas and thoughts about what we believe to be our community values around such policies,” Benson said. “We have legal counsel review those policies, and after going through that process, to be honest, there wasn’t a lot of drama associated with the development of this policy. We were a little ahead of the game.”
President Obama’s mandate is being challenged in court by more than 20 states. Wisconsin is one of them.
Many school districts in the state are waiting to see the results of this appeal before they implement policies, but Benson said it was right for River Falls to be proactive on this issue.
“This certainly has gotten to be much more of a societal awareness issue since then,” Benson said. “We as a district took almost a year ago, before Obama ever came out with these mandates.
“I’m of the belief that a school district policy should be a direct reflection of the community’s values.”
While the school district has been preemptive in addressing these issues, as they have come up, that’s not true everywhere.
City Hall has both men’s and women’s bathrooms, but according to Mary Zimmerman, the city’s communications director, there are no policies regarding transgender bathroom use.
“The issue hasn’t been brought forward,” she said. “We will review our policies if it does.”
UW-River Falls is another public space where the issue is beginning to be addressed.
According to a recent Student Voice campus newspaper story, two residence halls could have gender neutral bathrooms after renovations.
One gender neutral bathroom is found in the University Center, but is called a ‘family bathroom.’ According to Campus Planner Dale Braun, there will be more of these in future buildings, due to state requirements.
“Wisconsin building code now requires that construction of “family restrooms” in all new buildings to meet the needs of not only families, but also transgender individuals,” Braun said.
“We are planning on providing these facilities in Grimm and McMillan resident halls as restrooms are remodeled.
“The Falcon Center will have one, and any new large construction project, like Rodli Hall will feature a family restroom as well.”
The restroom policy is still being figured out in River Falls public schools.
While Benson is proud of the policy implemented, he said there’s certainly the possibility it can be changed to fit the school district and needs of its students.
“There are certain details in how every situation will be handled,” Benson said. “We strive in our district to do what we believe to be the right thing for all students involved. We have to strike the right kind of balance.
“We do believe that this policy serves it’s purpose well, but as time goes on, there’s the possibility that there could be some changes, as there are with any policy.”