Three years ago, a transgender high school student approached leaders at the Salem-Keizer School District and told them they needed to do better.
Julian, a nonbinary student who is now a senior, said the lack of consistent school or district policies led to teachers incorrectly referring to them as a girl or using the wrong name in front of classmates, often because district records were out of date.
“I am a student who loves going to school, I have always loved going to school,” they said. “But going to school became … something that was awful, that I didn’t want to encounter. I missed so much school my freshman year because of the psychological damage that it took on me to go into class every day, even when I loved the content.”
Julian asked to be identified by first name only to avoid being attacked or harassed for being a transgender student.
Suzanne West, the district’s director of strategic initiatives, said when Julian raised the issue, the district had never considered deliberate policies about transgender students.
“The student was ahead of us,” West said.
But district administrators listened, and Julian gave advice on what a better system could look like.
As a result, district administrators in late March adopted five policies intended to better support transgender students. They are drawing the ire of a Republican gubernatorial candidate and local protestors who denounced the policies as attacking girls sports and infringing on parental rights.
New policies, older practices
The new policies say that transgender students may use bathrooms and locker rooms corresponding to their gender identities, participate in sports at school under the gender they live as, and saying the district will support and affirm transgender students.
(View the policies above)
Much of the substance of the new policies, including bathroom access and athletic participation, is already required under existing state and federal law, Oregon academic standards, court rulings and policies from the Oregon School Activities Association, which is the governing body for school sports.
OSAA in 2019 adopted a policy allowing transgender students to compete as the gender they live as. Peter Weber, the organization’s executive director, said OSAA has received no complaints about transgender student athletes since the policy was adopted.
The Salem-Keizer district has also allowed students to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity and play sports for years, West said. The new policies are an effort to standardize practices, not a shift in district operations.
“The concern is that boys are going to go into girls’ locker rooms and assault the girls. I can’t find any incident of that happening with students who are transgender,” West said, referring to both the district and the U.S. as a whole.
Julian said classmates and others who work in schools day-to-day are generally supportive.
“People not involved in any of this get really upset about it, but everyone who is involved doesn’t really care that much,” they said.
The policies also allow students to change their own names and gender in the district’s student records system, and state that a student’s transgender status may not be disclosed to others, including caregivers, unless that disclosure is legally required or a student’s health and safety is at risk.
A presentation on the new policies and procedures was sent to district administrators March 31, said Sylvia McDaniel, the district’s director of communication and community relations.
Following its usual procedures, the district didn’t afford for public discussion or notification of the new policies. The Salem-Keizer School Board operates under a “policy governance” model, which means board directors set broad goals for the superintendent related to academic achievement and district operations, but leaves administrators leeway to decide how to achieve them. Policies about day-to-day district operations typically don’t come before the board for approval.
The policies have drawn pushback from SK We Stand Together, a citizen advocacy group that describes itself on its website as focused on “parent’s rights, educational transparency, equal opportunity, academic excellence, and school choice for every student.”
The group is led by Linda Farrington, who ran unsuccessfully for the Salem-Keizer School Board in 2021 as part of a conservative slate of candidates. In newsletters, events and testimony before the school board, the group has generally challenged district policies and curriculum related to Covid protocols, sex education and discussions of race and racism, saying such policies distract from a focus on core academic subjects.
The group organized a protest of the new policies Monday morning outside the district’s student services center, with dozens of people carrying signs saying the district should focus on educating students, not indoctrinating them, and saying the new policies ignored biology.
A group in support of transgender students showed up to counterprotest with gay and transgender pride flags.
Stan Pulliam, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, also attacked the policies in an April 6 news conference, part of a broader trend of Republican politicians opposing transgender girls’ participation in school sports across the country.
Pulliam derided the policies as a distraction from academics.
“Our schools should not be pushing kids to examine their gender identity at a very young age. They should be focusing on catching our kids up on the basic subjects that are supposed to be taught in schools,” he said.
Casity Troutt, the vice president of SK We Stand Together, spoke with him at the news conference, saying the policy reflects a lack of transparency from the district and ignores the rights of parents.
“Why is our district actively creating policies that are hindering parents with legal rights to know what is going on with their child? Anytime a child is struggling with gender identity issues, there are serious psychological factors that need to be addressed. And it’s the parents that are the ones who are responsible for that care, not teachers, not staff and not district personnel,” Troutt said.
Julian said allowing students to discover who they are and explore that identity at school is important because most young people seek support from their peers before they reach out to parents.
“It’s a process of getting there, because often your parents are the people in your life you’ve known the longest and have all these expectations for who you are supposed to be. And so it’s a really scary thing for a student to one, assert an identity to someone who has immense power over you, and then two, assert your identity to someone who has a lot of expectations built up in their head about you,” Julian said.
That’s especially true if a student expects parents will react negatively, they said.
Julian and district administrators said a major focus of the policy is to improve mental health and prevent suicide among transgender students.
Transgender people, particularly youth, have a much higher rate of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts than the general population. A 2022 study in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence found 56% of transgender youth reported attempting suicide, and and nearly nine out of 10 reported considering it.
But suicide rates were lower among young people who were supported in their transgender identity by family and at school.
“I do not know a single trans student who has not experienced depression and suicidal ideation,” Julian said. “Why I’m so dedicated to this trans policy is because we just have to do whatever we can to lower the chance that we lose one of our trans students.”
Mikki Gillette, major gifts officer for Basic Rights Oregon, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, said the policies are a major step forward from her experience in Oregon and California schools in the 1980s and 1990s.
Gillette, a transgender woman, said she knew she was a girl before she started kindergarten, but there was no space for her to be recognized in a world that expected her to be a boy.
“That part of myself was just kind of a shameful secret – that’s what it felt like. I had told my parents and they just tried to scare me or bully me out of that. I didn’t really talk about it,” she said.
Trans kids, she said, “want to go to school and be accepted for who they are and learn, and I think these policies understand that.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated when a study in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence was published. It was 2022, not 2021.
Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.
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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.