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Education

Utah’s education board still struggling to finalize guidance for gender identity in schools

A photo of a empty classroom.
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The Standards and Assessment Committee has spent months working towards a document to help teachers and school staff ensure transgender and nonbinary students have the accommodations and protections they need to feel safe in school.

A committee of the Utah State Board of Education held a special meeting Monday night to discuss their evolving guidance for schools addressing the rights of transgender, non-binary and gender non-comforming students.

It’s an issue board members say schools are increasingly requesting help with, as a growing number of students are identifying as different genders. Those students face higher risks of bullying, depression and suicide, they noted.

USBE recognized that academic success depends on access to an environment that is safe, conducive to learning and free from unnecessary disruption, discrimination and harassment.

The core challenge is how schools protect those students’ rights to privacy and accommodations, particularly if those requests are not known by parents or other students, who may object to those accommodations if discovered.

“It’s a sensitive subject, there are a lot of feelings on all sides of the issue,” said Standards and Assessment Committee Chair Scott Hansen. “We know that everybody out there who’s helping us and commenting on this has our students’ best interests at heart.”

A draft of the board’s guidance, which has been months in the making, takes cues from existing policies from several other states, including Hawaii, Illinois and Texas.

The policies vary widely, depending largely on individual state laws, and address a range of considerations, from parental notification and educator responsibility to bathroom use and overnight trips.

The board weighed various considerations in each area, for example, whether to require some kind of documentation from students requesting to use a bathroom.

Staff attorney Bryan Quesenberry noted that federal law mandates students have the right to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity and requiring them to prove it would amount to discrimination.

He also noted, however, that students who are not comfortable also have the right for different accommodations. Schools must also ensure all students are aware of those rights, while avoiding publicizing who is requesting accommodations.

As much as board members worked to create overarching guidance, often it came down to asking schools to work with individual students and their families, as well as any other students or families that disagree or are uncomfortable.

Board member Brent Strate said it felt like navigating all the potential issues that could arise made creating clear, overarching guidance an impossible task.

“It seems like as a teacher as we work through these issues, it just didn't seem as complicated as it feels tonight,” he said. “When it's your student and you're working through these ideas with pronouns and records and privacy, it sure feels different than when you're talking about it on this giant document that's supposed to provide direction.”

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