Kalispell Schools Consider Gender Equality Protections

Proposal moves forward for further board deliberation before third reading in August

By Clare Menzel

The Kalispell District 5 School Board met on July 14 at the Kalispell Middle School to hear the second round of public comments on a proposed addendum to the district’s anti-discrimination policy.

The proposal would add the words “gender identity, sexual orientation, and gender expression” to the current Policy on Equal Education, Nondiscrimination, and Sex Equity. This new language would protect gender non-conforming students from discrimination related to the way they present their gender.

Before opening the floor for public comment, Board Chairman Joe Brenneman reminded attendees that personally held beliefs about gender do not have direct bearing on a decision about gender-based discrimination.

“We are not a legislative body,” he said. “We are a school board. Ideological, theological arguments about what is before us are not relevant.”

When Brenneman asked if attendees were in support of the change, most raised their hands. Those opposing the change were not a weak minority, however, and they made sure their protests were heard.

The loudest applause from objectors came in response to a comment about perversity – what if prurient adolescents pretended to be transgender in order to sneak a peak in the other locker room?

Brenneman said this logistical issue of implementation would be dealt with if the additions were voted into the discrimination policy, should this ever prove to be an issue.

Other objectors worried about the slippery slope.

“If this policy allows for gender identity expression, the door is open to any other form of identity,” said Kalispell Republican Rep. Keith Regier. “What about species? Race? … Who knows what will be next.”

Some expressed concern for all students, saying that by focusing on select groups rather than on broad anti-bullying policies, the needs of the other students are going unmet.

“Each of us in this room has a gender identity,” Luke Van Helden, of Kalispell, said in response. “We each have a sexual orientation and a gender expression… So this is for all of us.”

Most of the residents protesting the bill argued that they believe the existing policy already protects LGBT students.

“This doesn’t need to happen,” former Montana legislator Derek Skees told the board. “You guys will never discriminate against anything a student does … Why do we need ­­this language?”

The closest related protections for LGBT students are limited to sex-based discrimination, which does not cover gender-based discrimination. If it did in theory, multiple attendees testified that the current protections do not cast wide enough a net in practice.

DJ Cummings, a teacher at Glacier High School, read aloud excerpts from an email he received from a student who suffered verbal and physical abuses related to gender expression.

“I remember some teachers and peers who would simply watch [the harassment] and ignore. I’m sure it was a lot easier for them, but it was not easy for me. That place [school] was my only safe place, and it wasn’t safe after all,” Cummings read.

“This clearly is still happening,” Cummings said, “despite our non-bullying policy. We need something extra.”

Stephanie Woodland, a Flathead High School junior, agreed.

“These students have been discriminated against long enough,” she said. “And not only by their peers but by their adult mentors. By the educators who are supposed to protect them … So how come this hasn’t stopped? How come these issues haven’t been halted with the already existing policies? That is why this policy change is still necessary.”

After attendees exhausted the allotted time for comment, board members voted down a motion to strike all specific protections – including, for example, race, religious belief, and physical or mental handicaps or disabilities — from the policy, in order to create a blanket policy that didn’t single out certain groups for explicit protection.

“Then we don’t leave anybody out,” said board member Steve Davis in defense of the motion.

The groups given specific protection under school discrimination policies across the United States have historically suffered when general anti-bullying or anti-discrimination measures proved insufficient.

“What we forget,” Van Helden had said earlier in response to a similar suggestion, “is we have privilege. The system is designed for some people and not for others. The important part is [protecting] the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.”

With no further comments from the board, the meeting moved on to other topics.

The sub-committee led by Jack Fallon will reconvene to discuss possible edits, and will present the final draft of the proposal during August’s board meeting, at which time the board will vote to establish or omit gender inclusory language in the discrimination policy.

“The arc of history is long,” said board member Don Murray, “but it bends toward justice. I think by doing this [adding this language to the policy] we are following the course toward justice.”