Philly schools pass sweeping policy protecting transgender students

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Dr. William Hite, Superintendent for the School District of Philadelphia, Marjorie Neff, Chairwoman for the School Reform Commission, and Uri Monson, Chief Financial Officer for the Philadelphia School District, take part in proceedings during hearing in City Council Chambers at Philadelphia City Hall.

Without debate or comments from the public, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission adopted a policy Thursday night that immediately allows transgender students to, among other things, be referred to by their pronoun of choice; use their bathroom of choice; and go out for the athletic team of their gender choice, either boys' or girls'.

"It's really important for us to acknowledge and respect all children and how they identify themselves," Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said after the meeting. "This ensures that they are treated fairly, and that everyone understands the protocols that we should use with respect to children who identify as transgender."

District spokesman Fernando Gallard said the policy formalizes what had been the district's informal policy. "A lot of these things we were already doing," he said.

For example, a transgender student identifying as a girl would be allowed to use the girls' restroom or join a girls' group, Gallard said. Previously, principals would ask district headquarters for guidance on a case-by-case basis, and eventually the district developed an understanding of how to handle transgender issues.

District officials said they did not know how many students the new policy would apply to. About 30 parents have asked questions related to transgender rights in the last seven years, said Karyn Lynch, director of student services.

The policy states that students have a right to keep their transgender identity private, and that school personnel should not disclose such information unless the student authorizes such disclosure.

Philadelphia's transgender policy is the latest in a growing number in the region and country. In April, the school boards in Springfield Township, Montgomery County, and the Great Valley School District in Chester County adopted similar policies. The school board in Cherry Hill did likewise in February.

The action comes on the heels of the Obama administration's call last month for public schools to give transgender students the right to use bathrooms of their choice. The message, delivered in the form of a letter from the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, was couched as guidance rather than an executive order.

It said school districts must not discriminate against students based on gender identity, and contained an implicit threat that districts that defied the administration's view of the law could face lawsuits or lose federal funds.

Republicans on Capitol Hill and in Harrisburg denounced the guidance, calling it unconstitutional and bullying. They promised to challenge it.

SRC member Bill Green applauded the administration for championing the rights of transgender students.

"It's good federal policy to force school districts across the country to put in place policies that respect people's dignity," he said.

The new policy explicitly states that transgender students have the right to be treated according to the gender they identify with when using restrooms and locker rooms, and when participating in intramural sports and physical education classes.

It allows transgender students to be called by the name and pronoun of their choice on official school documents, such as rosters and report cards, and to dress in a manner consistent with their gender identity.

Also, it states that participation on interscholastic competitive sports teams and contact sports "will be resolved on a case-by-case basis."

"The purpose of this policy is to ensure safety, equity, and justice for all students regardless of gender identity or gender expression so that they can reach their fullest human and intellectual potential," the policy states.

In other business, the SRC approved a four-year labor contract with SEIU 32BJ District 1201, which represents 2,000 School District blue-collar employees including cleaners, maintenance workers, and building engineers.

The SRC also adopted a policy to create school advisory councils at each school. The councils would include the principal, parents, other family members, and school staff. Students would serve in high schools. The councils would have a voice in areas including school budgets and student discipline.

deanm@phillynews.com215-854-4172@mensahdean

Staff writer Robert Moran contributed to this article.