Lawrence schools task force stresses need for gender-neutral bathrooms, LGBT support

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

Members of the Lawrence school board meet Monday, June 13, 2016, at the district's offices.

Gender-neutral bathrooms, training on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, and private changing and showering areas in locker rooms were among a Lawrence school district task force’s recommendations for improving the experiences of LGBT students in the district.

“In terms of facilities, transgender and gender nonconforming students report anxiety regarding access to bathrooms,” task force member Lindsay Buck told the school board at its meeting Monday. “Gender-neutral bathrooms must be a priority in all school settings.”

Buck, who teaches at Lawrence High School and described herself as an out lesbian staff member, is on the task force along with other district teachers, administrators, parents and community members. The district doesn’t currently have any gender-neutral bathrooms with multiple stalls, and transgender students can either use the men’s or women’s bathroom, or single-occupancy bathrooms.

Buck said that in the wake of the shooting on Sunday at a gay nightclub in Orlando, which left nearly 50 people dead, showing support for LGBT students takes on additional importance.

“Our LGBTQ youth need to know now more than ever that school is a safe place for them,” Buck said. “They need to know that they are supported and loved and they need to know that their lives matter.”

One of the school board’s goals for the 2015-2016 school year was to investigate issues related to LGBT students and implement supports. The district created the LGBT task force in response to the goal, and it met throughout the past school year.

Recently issued federal guidelines say transgender students should be able use the bathroom and locker room that matches their gender identity, and the task force report recommended that the district provide private changing areas and showers in locker rooms.

Buck said that another priority is requiring training for staff members regarding LGBT issues.

“Students report over and over again that they wish their teachers and staff members had more knowledge of LGBTQ topics, issues, terminology, preferred pronouns and so on,” Buck said. For transgender students, Buck noted that some students reported issues with teachers not using the names and pronouns consistent with their gender identities.

Lawrence schools Superintendent Rick Doll, who was one of the administrators involved in the board goal, recognized that staff training and guidelines are needed. Though he noted some teachers may just not know how to address transgender students, that is not always the case.

“Unfortunately, I think we have some adults who do know and choose not to treat them as an individual student,” Doll said. “I think most of it is because adults just don’t know, and from a professional development standpoint they need to learn and then they need to call the student by what the student desires to be called.”

The report covered various topics, organized under five categories: facilities, curriculum, resources, professional development for staff, and student awareness. The report includes challenges identified by the task force in each area, as well as recommendations to address those challenges.

The school board will use the recommendations from the task force to inform its goals for the upcoming school year. School board President Vanessa Sanburn thanked Buck and other members of the task force for their work.

“I think this is an issue that we care deeply about and are glad that people are willing to come together and talk about how we can improve,” Sanburn said. “…We have goal-setting session again in August this year, where we basically will take this input and then use that in future goals.”

Task Force Recommendations:

Facilities: Gender-neutral restroom facilities and more private areas for eating lunch. In school locker rooms, more private changing areas and private showers are recommended.

Curriculum: Include LGBT students in books and resources. These LGBT resources need to be embedded in the material, not added on. Include LGBT issues in the sex education and health curriculum. In school music groups, transgender students should be able to sing the part that their voice allows.

Resources: Educate mental health teams about LGBT issues, including suicide prevention. Increase resources around LGBT issues in library media centers.

Professional development for staff: Provide training to all staff regarding LGBT issues. Training should be informed by students and include terminology, legal issues and basic communication protocol. Evaluate school activities around gender binary issues. Investigate and address issues with student names in school recordkeeping.

Student awareness: Adopt staff training on LGBT issues for students. Continue emphasis on bullying issues and support of student organizations such as the Gay-Straight Alliance.

In other business, the board:

• Reviewed a report updating the board on legislative and school finance issues affecting the district, and the potential for a shutdown of schools statewide. If allowed, the district plans to use reserve funds in an effort to keep the district operating.

• Reviewed a report on mental health services in the district. The report summarized current programming, including prevention and support services available to students at different levels.

• As was previously the plan, the board did not discuss changes to the district’s discrimination and harassment policy. The proposed changes are still being reviewed and will be presented at an upcoming meeting.

The next school board meeting will be 7 p.m. June 27 at the district offices, 110 McDonald Drive.