BY GEORGE FJELD
BRANDON- A crowd of about 40 parents, students and citizens swamped the Otter Valley Library for the February 15th meeting of the OVUU school board to discuss gender identity and privacy issues in the school bathrooms and locker rooms.
OV principal, Michael Ruppel, gave The Reporter the following statement about the events leading up to the board meeting:
“It is our understanding of state guidance and administrative policy that students have the right to use gender-specific facilities like locker rooms and bathrooms consistent with their gender identity. At least one transgender student approached us and indicated that they wanted to assert this right and use the changing facilities consistent with their gender identity. To prevent any surprise or potential conflict, we gave a statement to our phys ed classes this semester in which we reviewed this administrative policy and our expectations around kindness and inclusivity. The conversation with each class was cordial; we answered questions and encouraged students to chat with us privately if they had more questions. Soon after, we received a report that a male student was in the girls’ bathroom, which we confirmed and addressed thoroughly. It is not clear to us whether those two incidents were related.”
Barry Whitney, Jr. was first to speak in the public-comment portion of the meeting. He was upset that a biological male was in the locker room with his 14-year-old daughter. He voiced concerns that individuals of varying age and sex might share the same spaces for toileting, changing, and showering. Whitney said “I’m concerned that a senior male student could be in the bathroom with a 7th grade girl. The bathrooms and locker rooms do not afford enough privacy. All students need a safe and supportive space. We need to be proactive and not reactive. Otter Valley is in chaos.”
Jennifer Cyr Tinsman spoke next, stating, “Privacy and safety need to be combined with social integration.” She suggested the use of private stalls in the bath and locker rooms. Tinsman said, “there is a loss of consent for others to see you in these spaces. Transgender students want alignment with how they see themselves.”
Davina Currier voiced her concern that students could be accused of rape or sexual harrassment because of mixed bathrooms. “Is it worth it?” she asked.
Heather Disorda was concerned that sexual harassment will become a big issue. She worried that a biological male student “could get aroused by seeing a girl until he has surgery.”
Jed Byrum has 3 daughters who may go to OV. He said, “Harassment is the big issue. Kids see [transgender] in a pure way, not like adults. Let’s stop adults from adding to it.”
Student Amelia Whitney had a male come into the girls’ locker room and was fearful. “I got a petition with 200+ signatures to give to the administration. This is sad for students who are very uncomfortable.”
Andrea Quesnel wants the school board to address basic student safety, stating ”I don’t want my 14-year-old daughter to witness male genitalia.”
Sam Stone was concerned about inflammatory comments on Facebook about the classification of students using bathrooms consistent with their self-identified gender. She stated “My kids didn’t know this was an issue.”
Lisa Kenyon wanted to know how the school board would inform parents about their decision in this matter.
Jessica Ketcham asked “Can we just have private bathrooms?”
Alex Ramage wanted bathrooms “segregated by sex or just use the private bathroom.”
Marianne Dillon commended the students who showed up to the board meeting and stated “There is nothing wrong with having male and female bathrooms.”
Jed Byrum said “there is behavior that is not okay” that is not related to transgender issues.
Darlene Kelly related her daughter’s comment “What’s the big deal?” Darlene stated “We’re repeating the history of the gay changes years ago.” Teenagers are “developmentally growing and wanting to be accepted by their peers.”
Via Zoom, Naomi Malay said “There is no evidence that trangender individuals are harassing others. Focus on harassment not sexuality.”
Andrea Quesnel was glad to hear from parents whose children feel safe. Her daughter doesn’t feel so.
Erin Doaner made an appeal for individual stalls in bathrooms.
OV Principal Michael Ruppel spoke next, stating “I hear community members asking for the safety of the students. I have been working hard at this since I started here last summer. We have harassment and assault policies in place. Students don’t change their use of gender specific bathrooms on a daily basis.” He wanted the parents and citizens to know that the process to work on this difficult issue is lengthy. “OV would benefit from more private changing areas and bathrooms.”
OVUU superintendent, Kristen Hubert, stated “Safety is the number one priority. Private spaces are needed, this is a long term priority.”
Hubert related that OV administrators and counselors are meeting with representatives from the Vermont Principals Association, the Vermont Superintendents Association, and Outright Vermont, a 25-year-old organization supporting LGBTQ+ youth on Friday, February 17.
The majority of board members who were on the OVUU board in May of 2021 didn’t recall when then-Superintendent Jeanne Collins wrote the administrative memo outlining the ability of students to use the bathroom of the gender they associate with. It was noted that the board was dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic and its effects on OV. Chair Laurie Bertrand questioned whether this was a change in policy versus a new policy. Board member Natalie Steen commented that this administrative memo was following a best-practices directive from both the state and federal Education Departments.
Board member Kevin Thorton reviewed Title 9 of Vermont Statutes: Commerce & Trade and the Dear Colleague letter of 2015. He then said “There is no law, state or federal, pertaining to this topic… Now we should have a discussion. It’s an opportunity for frank discussion, all on the table for the community.”
Steen called for an expert opinion.
Hubert reiterated that the memo was based on state and federal “best practices.”
Tinsman quoted Vermont statute §VSA4502: “An owner or operator of a place of public accommodation or an agent or employee of such owner or operator shall not, because of the race, creed, color, national origin, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity of any person, refuse, withhold from, or deny to that person any of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of the place of public accommodation.”
Soon after, there was a loud outcry with shouting and booing. Bertrand, obviously upset, raised her voice saying “Talk to me. Be an example for the children we’re trying to raise and educate.”
Thornton noted the obvious contradiction “when one person’s right infringes on another’s rights or safety.”
Susannah White commented via Zoom, “We can’t put the safety issue on transgender students. It’s really about sexual harassment.” “We can’t be unfair and harmful to the transgender students.”
After Brent Scarborough commented that it’s only the transgender students who are having issues, it was pointed out that there have been privacy and harassment issues in bathrooms and locker rooms for decades.
Bertrand, in concluding the meeting, said that the next opportunity for the board to address this issue will be the April meeting. Administrators will meet with other groups to discuss the issue.
Steen asked if the student body could be educated about the consequences of using the bathroom of choice. Principal Ruppel stated they must be careful when speaking to the student body as a whole and it may be better to do it in smaller groups with the counselors.