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News / Clark County News

La Center School District updated gender policy sparks complaint with state

By Griffin Reilly, Columbian staff writer
Published: March 3, 2023, 6:13am

The debate over teachers’ ability to ask students their preferred pronouns in the La Center School District has taken a new turn, with the district updating its “gender inclusive schools” policy to involve parents in all discussions about pronoun usage and restrict such conversations in the classroom.

Asking students their preferred pronouns, according to both the policy and district Superintendent Peter Rosenkranz, is an act of “facilitating questioning gender identity or to facilitate gender transitioning.”

“Curriculum, instruction, and ‘Gender-affirming’ activities in schools may cause gender-confusion for children,” the policy reads under the “Guiding Principles” section.

The new policy has come to light as a group of La Center educators, parents and students filed a complaint regarding the policy to the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, expressing concern that it presents potential dangers to students who don’t feel comfortable talking with their family and parents about their gender identity.

Authors of the complaint and Manny Santiago, the director of the state LGBTQ Commission, said language throughout the policy is dismissive and reflects a lack of understanding of what it means to be a member of the LGBTQ+ community.

“Our concern is the safety and support for our children, especially those who are LGBTQ+,” Santiago said. “It is evident that there is an agenda behind all of this to portray the LGBTQ+ community as completely different than who we are. It is an agenda of demonizing our community, of making us be the ‘bad guys’ and we need to stop it.”

Inside the policy

The issue came to light this past fall, when a group of teachers and community members filed a joint complaint with the school board after Rosenkranz sent a staff email instructing teachers to not include a question about preferred pronouns in any getting-to-know-you surveys that teachers share with students at the beginning of the school year.

The policy in question — titled 3211P, Procedure: Gender-Inclusive Schools — was updated on Jan. 24, just two weeks after the school board dismissed Rosenkranz of any wrongdoing in his initial request to staff.

Rosenkranz outlined the goals of the district with regard to the policy in a “state of the district” presentation on Tuesday. In the meeting, he doubled down on an approach that he’s kept at the forefront of his time as superintendent: “staying in our lane” of teaching academics only and leaving everything else to parents.

At its core, the policy encourages district employees to abstain from any conversations about gender identity in the classroom, arguing that the role of the district is to provide academic education only.

According to state guidance, when a student asks their teacher if they may go by a specific set of pronouns, the teacher and school employees should honor that request. La Center’s policy pushes against the guidance and, in one instance, contradicts itself.

Under a section titled “Collaboration Family Communication Protocol,” the policy reads, “When a student requests being called by a different name or pronoun indicating a change in gender, we are to honor that request.”

When such a request is made, however, the policy instructs staff to inform the principal and the student’s counselor. They’ll then consult with the student to determine the nature of their home situation and how or if parents should be notified. If a parent asks the school about whether their student has requested a name or pronoun change, the school will inform them.

In an interview Wednesday, however, Rosenkranz said he would approach every family with the assumption that their intentions and home life are positive and that he and the district would ultimately adhere to their wishes for their child, even if they differ from the child’s own.

“This is a more family-friendly approach. The state wants us to determine danger of parents, and that’s not our role. I’m a mandatory reporter, not a mandatory judger,” Rosenkranz said. “The part that folks are gravitating to are people talking to parents — our perspective is why would we deny our kids access to the No. 1 resource in their lives, their parents?”

In situations where parents request schools not honor a student’s name or pronoun change, Rosenkranz said he’d involve the district’s legal team.

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Concerns as mandatory reporters

Erin Smelser, a paraeducator in the La Center School District and a board member for Clark County Pride, is one of the complaint’s lead authors and has repeatedly expressed frustration for both Rosenkranz’s initial request and this updated policy. Perhaps her biggest concern with the policy is that it blurs the responsibility that all state school employees, including Rosenkranz, have as mandatory reporters.

According to state law, school employees are legally required to report any instance in which they are led to believe a child has or is in danger of suffering abuse or neglect by their parents, family or legal guardians.

“As a mandated reporter, I have to let somebody know that this child is in danger if they reveal their pronouns to parents,” Smelser said. “What my boss has said to parents is, ‘it’s not my job to know if you are dangerous or not.’ But that’s not true, that’s a job the state has tasked us with.”

Santiago said that La Center and Rosenkranz’s approach to consulting with parents in this situation discounts the reality of how many children are ostracized at home upon coming out or being outed as members of the LGBTQ+ community.

“Statistics tell us that as much as half of LGBTQ children and youth who come out to their parents are thrown out from their homes; 40 percent of youth experiencing homelessness are LGBTQ youth and children,” Santiago said. “The superintendent is trying to contribute to that number by putting them in danger of being outed and stripping them of that safety.”

Smelser said that the policy puts her in a position to choose between adhering to moral and state-provided responsibility of reporting potentially dangerous family situations with the risk of violating district policy and potentially being fired.

“I need to understand if being a mandated reporter overrides this policy of outing a children to their parents. Can I be fired if I choose not to share to a parent who I’ve been told could react negatively to this?” Smelser said. “Right now, we haven’t gotten that response.”

Language issues and refused trainings

Santiago and Smelser also expressed concern that Rosenkranz and members of the school board were unclear on a key distinction between gender identity and sexuality.

On Wednesday, Rosenkranz said he didn’t want to engage in a “debate” on such a distinction.

“This is so new, the research is so new, to run (headlong) into this seems counterintuitive, especially for children,” Rosenkranz said. “I’m cautious of moving forward with any absolutes that may have lasting harm. I know folks will bristle at this, but it’s almost like a fad.”

Santiago said he’s been disappointed by Rosenkranz’s stance and also felt concerned about the uses of the phrases “gender confusion” and “gender-affirming activities” in the policy.

“No kid is ‘confused’ about their identity. In any kind of identity,” Santiago said. “It is very disappointing to me that educators who are supposed to understand children’s development do not understand when it comes to identity. It is totally normal for any human being in their development to explore these things.”

Santiago continued that “gender-affirming activities or curriculum” as referenced in multiple sections of the policy are not things that exist in Washington, and that he is not sure where they received guidance to include such language.

“Our students are not being presented with any gender-affirming activities or gender-affirming curriculum,” Santiago said. “The students are not getting any type of education on how to become gay or trans, and the way that this policy is written, that’s what they want the public to believe.”

Smelser and others from Clark County Pride reached out to Rosenkranz to see if La Center would be interested in receiving training from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network for educators to learn more about conversations of identity in the classroom.

In a Feb. 7 email, Rosenkranz declined any sort of staffwide training and instead pushed for “civil conversation” between himself and Clark County Pride.

Next steps

A representative from OSPI could not be reached for comment on the status of the complaint as of Thursday, but Smelser said that the group received confirmation that the appeal had been filed.

Smelser said she and other authors of the initial complaint haven’t received an update or timeline since filing the appeal last month. Santiago said La Center’s policy is not the only of its kind in Washington and that several other complaints of a similar nature, too, have been filed with OSPI in recent months.

The group’s proposed resolution is not that all teachers be required to ask students their pronouns, rather that the prohibition on asking such questions be lifted in an effort to make such conversations more comfortable and adhere to the civil rights of students. Additionally, they are hoping the state can provide clarity on staff’s roles as mandated reporters in tandem with this policy if it is maintained.

“The Superintendent’s rule is an apparently neutral rule that affects the LGBTQ, and only the LGBTQ, community,” the appeal, which was filed Feb. 10, reads. “The directive creates a systemic barrier toward the inclusion of LGBTQ students: gender diverse students have the choice to either accept being mis-gendered in each of their classes, or they must find the courage to speak up and correct all of their teachers.”