Medford City Councilor Robert Penta raised concerns Tuesday about 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. “Nobody knows what repercussions are going to come out of this.”
Penta said he wanted to be assured the law will 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 referred to the law officially titled An Act Relative to Gender Identity, which was passed by the state Legislature in 2011 and took effect last July, as the “Massachusetts Stealth Bathroom Bill.” No action was taken on the resolution, and no other councilors commented. 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 Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of education, last month, that outlines guidelines for schools regarding transgender students.
Schools are required to accept the gender the student recognizes as their own, which includes allowing them access to bathrooms, locker rooms, and changing rooms of the gender with which they identify, or to provide them with an alternative — such as a unisex bathroom — if the transgender student is not comfortable. Students also are allowed to participate in sports “in a manner consistent with their gender identity.”
The Rev. Noah Evans of Grace Episcopal Church in Medford said bullying can be difficult for transgender youths, and the new law helps protect them.
“It’s tough, it’s really tough, and I think that these guidelines are excellent . . . they are really thoughtful,” he told the City 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 also 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.
Partridge said the directives in the state-issued memo to schools was comprehensive.
“I found [them] to be really amazing,” he said. “They give me a lot of hope.”
Paulette Van der Kloot, vice chairwoman of the School Committee, said she does 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 supports the law’s efforts to address bullying.
According to the memo distributed by the state, the 2011 National School Climate Survey by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network found that 75.4 percent of transgender students had been verbally harassed in the previous year; 32.1 percent had been physically harassed; and 16.8 percent had been physically assaulted.
“Educators play an essential role in advocating for the well-being of these students and creating a school culture that supports them,” the memo stated.
In a telephone interview Wednesday, Belson said he met with school administrators on Monday to go over the guidelines.
Situations will be handled on a case-by-case basis, as outlined in the memo from the Department of Education, he said.
“I think we can handle it reasonably well,” he said. “Obviously, this is something that will require a little experience, but we are prepared for it.”
Belson said more accessible unisex bathrooms will likely be implemented, and other accommodations will be considered.
“We will treat everyone with the appropriate respect and provide appropriate assistance,” he said. “We’ll also do things to protect the privacy and comfort of all students.”
The Medford School Committee will review Chester’s directive in a meeting at 7 p.m. Monday at City Hall, Belson said.