Nashua is the latest school district to approve a new policy for transgender students.
“It is great progress to see something like this happen, and let’s face it — New Hampshire is not the most diverse state, in some ways,” said Hershey Hirschkop, executive director of Seacoast Outright. “In terms of the LGBTQ community, it is represented here in New Hampshire, and so it is really a great leap forward, I think, that schools are paying attention to this.”
Gov. Chris Sununu signed Senate Bill 263 into law in July. It permits anti-discrimination lawsuits against school districts if students are discriminated against because of their race, disability, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and more.
Oyster River was one of the first school districts in the state to approve a policy for transgender students in 2016, followed by Hampton and Pembroke. The Keene School District approved its new policy in February, and Gilford and Nashua schools took up the matter earlier this fall.
“I think that schools that are adopting these policies will ultimately help prevent them from ending up in situations where someone may be discriminated against,” said Palana Belken, trans justice organizer with the ACLU of New Hampshire.
While it will not completely stop bullying and harassment against transgender youth, it does start the conversation and help educate the educators who work with the students, Belken said.
According to Nashua’s new policy, it is the responsibility of each school and the district to ensure that transgender and gender nonconforming students have a safe school environment, that any incident of discrimination, harassment or violence is given immediate attention and that complaints alleging discrimination or harassment based on a person’s actual or perceived transgender status or gender nonconformity are to be handled in the same manner as other discrimination or harassment complaints.
The policy states, in part, that “parents and/or students are encouraged to discuss with building administrators any issues that may arise in relation to a student’s transgender and nonconforming status, including but not limited to: privacy, official records, names and pronouns, restrooms, locker rooms, other gender-segregated facilities or activities, dress code and safety and support for transgender and transitioning students.”
Some individuals in Nashua are upset with the newly approved school district policy, in part because parents may not be informed if their child notifies administrators of their status as transgender or gender-nonconforming.
A local parent, Scott Couture, said that while he wants to protect students, the new policy is too vague.
“There seems to be no parent involvement whatsoever,” he maintained.
The policy, as written, allows a student to change their gender preference and name on their school record, but a parent does not need to be notified, according to Doris Hohensee, member of the Nashua Board of Education.
Parents should be informed so that they can help their child through the transitional process, she said.
Many school districts are adopting policies that echo a model policy written by the New Hampshire School Boards Association several years ago. It provides guidelines on how schools should address using certain pronouns for transgender students, restroom usage, locker room access and participation in team sports based on gender identity.
“We want every student to feel safe,” said Superintendent Mark McLaughlin of the Merrimack School District. “We are in the process of reviewing the state’s recommendations, and we want to do at least that much, and even more, to do a better job.”
He said public schools “have to take good care of all our citizens.”
That includes students with physical disabilities, or students who identify as trangender, said McLaughlin, adding the district must create conditions to keep all children safe. There is nothing controversial about that, he said.
“I am hopeful that as people become more familiar with and understand more about who transgender people are, we will see less exclusivity. Clear policies from school districts can help foster an inclusive environment,” said attorney Chris Erchull of GLAD, a LGBTQ legal advocate and defender.
He said New Hampshire’s new public school anti-discrimination bill ensures that all students have an equal right to education. If policies are not in place, there will likely be more incidents of bullying directed to transgender teens, said Erchull.
“We regularly hear from transgender students who face harassment. It is true today,” he said.