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Medford councilor raises concerns over transgender student guidelines

Posted by Jarret Bencks  February 27, 2013 09:59 AM

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Medford City Councilor Robert Penta raised concerns Tuesday over recent  changes that govern how public schools in Massachusetts are to receive transgender students.

"These are going to be big issues for the School Committee, big issues for the superintendent," Penta said Tuesday. "... Nobody knows what repercussions are going to come out of this."

Penta said he wanted to be ensured the law would be taken seriously by students, and not be used as a way for students to go into locker rooms or bathrooms of the opposite sex.

"The major issue seems to be the bathroom issue," he said.

A resolution offered by Penta for Tuesday's City Council meeting referred to the law changes, passed in July, as the "Massachusetts Stealth Bathroom Bill."  No action was taken on the resolution, and no other councilors discussed it. The issue is expected to be discussed by the School Committee next week.

An 11-page memo was issued to schools around the state by Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester last week, which explains guidelines for schools regarding transgender students.

Schools are required to accept the gender the student recognizes as their own, and that includes allowing them access to bathrooms, locker rooms, and changing rooms of the gender they identify, or to provide them with an alternative -- such as a unisex bathroom -- if the transgender student is not comfortable.

The Rev. Noah Evans, of the Grace Episcopal Church in Medford, said bullying can be difficult for transgender youths, and the law helps protect from that.

"It's tough, it's really tough, and I think that these guidelines are excellent ... they are really thoughtful," he told the council on Tuesday.

Last year, the Episcopal Church voted to allow transgender people to be ordained. The Rev. Cameron Partridge, a transgender man who is the Episcopal chaplain at Boston University, lives in Medford. He addressed the council Tuesday.

"To be an adult now, to be a dad, and to know that my kids are growing up in a world where they know that someone like their dad is truly a valued member of the community and has access to education ... I'm really grateful we're in a place where we can have a conversation," he said.

He said he the memo issued to schools was comprehensive.

"I found [it] to be really amazing," Partridge said. "They give me a lot of hope."

Paulette Van der Kloot, vice chairwoman of the School Committee, said she did not believe the law would be an overwhelming change for Medford schools.

"What may seem strange and challenging today, in the future, it will just be the norm," she said.

Penta said he spoke with Superintendent Roy Belson prior to Tuesday's meeting, as well as members of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, and that he supported the law's efforts to address bullying.

The Medford School Committee is expected to review Chester's directive in a meeting next week, Van der Kloot said.

Jarret Bencks can be reached at bencks.globe@gmail.com. Follow him on twitter @JarretBencks.

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