Last summer, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction announced new learning standards for health and physical education scheduled for adoption by Washington K-12 schools statewide in autumn 2017, incorporating age-appropriate awareness of gender issues beginning as early as kindergarten.
Kathy Weymiller, director of community outreach for the Peninsula School District, said she told concerned parents last fall, “Yes, there are new standards and the way that looks in kindergarten is we are not going to encourage gender-specific play; we are not going to interfere in their choices. If a little boy wants to play in the kitchen, we’re going to defend his right to play in the kitchen. If a girl wants to play with a truck, we’re going to defend her right to play with a truck. That’s basically it.”
“Teaching about such topics as self-identity is not the same as promoting those topics,” said Ken Turner, program supervisor of health and physical education for OSPI. “Classroom teachers should not convey their own values about any sexual health educational topic. That is the role of parents.”
“As with comparative religion classes in school, we’re teaching a broad spectrum of information without judgment. It’s the same with gender; we know our students will hear the word ‘gender’ in the world and this is what it means,” Weymiller said.
The U.S. Center for Disease Control reports suicide as the second leading cause of death in the U.S. for young people between the ages of 10 and 24. CDC studies confirm students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning (LGBTQ) experience significantly more bullying, depression and suicide attempts than other students.
Each episode of victimization, such as physical abuse or verbal harassment, more than doubles the likelihood of self-harming behavior on average, according to The Trevor Project, a leading national organization providing crisis and suicide intervention services to LGBTQ youth.
The PSD school board developed its own policies and procedures in accordance with state law, adopting a district-wide policy on transgender students in September 2015, about the same time as the transgender-bathroom-use subject lit up news outlets and social media across the country.
PSD has an Equity and Diversity Committee that includes transgender students and their parents to help staff better understand what it’s like to be a transgender student.
“What I like about our transgender policy is, it respects and protects all students,” Weymiller said. “Just find out what people are worried about and then address that worry. You can deal with respect and kindness by addressing what people are afraid of. Parents are most often worried that their child may see something or hear something that their child is not developmentally ready for.”
“Parents always have the right to opt out of all or part of sexual health education for their own children and the adoption of these new learning standards don’t change parents’ rights to opt out,” Turner said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, the National PTA and other national organizations support programs to provide students with information about gender identity and sexual orientation.
“Spending my days surrounded by 8-year-olds has taught me that kids tend to accept cultural changes much faster than adults,” said Alice Kinerk, a third-grade teacher at Minter Creek Elementary (and a KP News staff writer currently on sabbatical). “My students would be surprised at first by a transgender peer, but I have a feeling that as long as the kid liked Goldfish crackers and Minecraft, they would be welcomed with open arms.”
In the weeks following the recent presidential election, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported a nationwide spike in hate speech and incidents of harassment targeting minority populations of African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Muslims, Jews, women and girls, immigrants and the LGBTQ community. While many incidents occurred in public spaces like workplace and retail environments, the setting most commonly cited were within the halls of schools and universities. PSD was no exception.
PSD has policies in place to protect students from harassment and bullying, and seeks instead to create a healthy environment that both values diversity and provides learning opportunities with respect for all Peninsula students, regardless of religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, according to Weymiller.
“What’s really at stake here is the well-being of our transgender students who are already so at risk out in the big world,” she said. “We strive to do everything we can to create a safe environment where these students can be in school and just be learners. Our transgender students are super respectful; they just want to be themselves.”
“The root of all bias is basically from not having enough information, especially on transgender issues because it’s all still sort of taboo,” said a Peninsula High School student in the LGBTQ community who preferred to remain anonymous. “People don’t want to talk about it because they don’t want to offend anybody. When communicating with transgender people, it’s all about intent; if you make a mistake and say something inappropriate, it’s important to apologize and go from there. We are all human, right?”