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News / Clark County News

La Center gender policy focus of probe by state

State superintendent’s office to determine if district discriminates

By Griffin Reilly, Columbian staff writer
Published: April 18, 2023, 5:51pm

The Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction has opened an investigation into the La Center School District and Superintendent Peter Rosenkranz regarding complaints from district staff that a new policy violates state guidelines around students’ freedom of expression.

The investigation, which was confirmed open as of April 7 following a complaint filed Feb. 16, concerns La Center’s Gender-Inclusive Schools Policy 3211-P, which prohibits staff from asking students to share their preferred pronouns and instructs staff to alert principals and family members when a student shares pronouns or a name that are different from what’s on school record.

Currently, the policy — which was put into place earlier this year after staff’s initial complaint was dismissed by the school board — does not align with OSPI’s rules and guidelines. The investigation, according to a letter sent to the complainants by Mallory Sullivan, a program attorney in OSPI’s equity and civil rights department, will check to see if the policy complies with Revised Code of Washington 28A.642.080, titled “Transgender student policy and procedure.”

Also included in the February complaint filed to OSPI is an allegation that following the implementation of district policy 3211-P in January, the school district placed an administrative letter — essentially a demerit — in the employment file of one of the lead complainants, pending no other incidents of “asking students about their pronouns.”

Last fall, staff filed the petition in response to Rosenkranz’s request via email that teachers not include “preferred pronouns” as a question on any getting-to-know-you surveys often shared with students at the beginning of the school year.

Goals for the investigation

As a result of the investigation, the complainants hope the state can provide some clarity on the law, which they feel intends to protect students but lacks the firm language to avoid being misinterpreted.

“(La Center) took advantage of (RCW 28A.642.080), it is overly broad and leaves room for error, almost like they were waiting for someone to test it,” said Erin Smelser, a paraeducator in the district and one of the authors of the complaint filed to the state. “I want them to delineate who the protected classes are, I want them to include and reference LGBTQ+ students included specifically and confirm that anything that puts them at risk needs to be met with consequences for the adults who put them in that situation.”

La Center’s policy features a handful of contradictions and unanswered questions, such as what the district would do in the event that parents request the school not adhere to their child’s request to go by a different name or pronouns. In that situation, Rosenkranz said, the district would consult its legal team.

That conclusion, Smelser said, isn’t a reasonable conclusion, and could open up the district to unnecessary litigation.

“You could have lawsuits for kids being hurt, you could have all sort of legal problems with this, and taxpayers would be on the hook,” she said.

Smelser added that she wants the state to provide or require mandatory sensitivity trainings for teachers and staff on how to address topics of gender, sexuality and the use of pronouns in the classroom. Rosenkranz previously refused such an offer made by the complainants for La Center staff to consult with representatives from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

Rosenkranz spoke about the policy last month with conservative talk show host Lars Larsen, reiterating his stance that the policy seeks to keep districts “in their own lane” of teaching academics. Regarding OSPI’s opened investigation, Rosenkranz said he plans to continue cooperating and looks forward to any clarity the agency’s findings might provide.

“I’m glad they’re looking into it. The state has left this area somewhat gray,” Rosenkranz said. “In the absence of support, depending on how you read the policy, you can interpret it differently.”

Rosenkranz maintains that he feels La Center’s policy adhered to RCW 28A.642.080 and referenced the law’s opening sentence, which reads “each school district must adopt or amend if necessary policies and procedures that, at a minimum, incorporate all the elements of the model transgender student policy and procedure described in (state law).”

“It allows me to amend the law, and I amended it by allowing parents a voice in that,” he said.

No timeline has been established for the investigation, but Sullivan’s letter to Smelser said the OSPI would continue to collect information and evidence related to the complaint for the investigation until April 24.

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