The Salem-Keizer school district has been in the news recently for a new set of policies aimed at being more inclusive of students who are transgender. Among other things, the policies clearly state that students can use bathrooms and play on sports teams that align with their gender. While Salem-Keizer has garnered a lot of attention from supporters and detractors, many of the policies have been in place for years. They are also in line with what the Oregon Department of Education recommends for schools across the state. We talk with ODE Director Colt Gill about the support in place for transgender students in Oregon.

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The rainbow flag, also known as the gay pride flag, is a symbol of LGBT and queer pride, left, along with the transgender flag, right, June 2, 2022.

The rainbow flag, also known as the gay pride flag, is a symbol of LGBT and queer pride, left, along with the transgender flag, right, June 2, 2022.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. The Salem-Keiser School District has been in the news in recent weeks for a new set of policies aimed at being more inclusive of students who are transgender among other things. The policies clearly state that students can use bathrooms and play on sports teams that align with their gender. While Salem-Keiser has garnered a lot of attention from both supporters and detractors, many of the new policies have actually been in place for a few years now. What’s more, they are also in line with what the Oregon Department of Education has recommended for schools across the state since 2016. Colt Gill is the director of the ODE. He joins us now to talk about the supports in place for transgender students in Oregon. Colt Gill, welcome back to TOL.

Colt Gill: Thanks for having me today.

Miller: So, I want to start with these now six-year-old sets of guidance that ODE released on supporting transgender students. The document lays out what’s required under state and federal laws and also makes recommendations that are specific to Oregon. Can you give us a broad overview of what those protections look like?

Gill: Yeah, I can do that. First off, I would just say that our public schools are here to serve everyone. And everyone coming into our schools should feel safe, affirmed and loved. So that every family member, every community member, every staff member comes into those spaces feeling welcomed and appreciated. And that’s a value that all students deserve to feel, not one that should be reserved for any particular students.

So, these laws have come into being to protect some of our students who haven’t always felt that way entering our public schools.

There are civil rights in federal Title IX laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In Oregon. We have a statute 659850, that prohibits discrimination based on gender identity and Title IX prohibits sex discrimination, and includes sex discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2016, that document you laid out our gender inclusive guidelines also speaks to court rulings over time that support our students. Oregon has laws that require suicide prevention and bullying prevention response. And that’s because we know unfortunately that our LGBTQ2SIA+ students experience higher rates of bullying and fear-based absences and suicidal ideation, and even sexual assault, than their cis-gendered and heterosexual peers.

A couple more pieces that are in place for our students here in Oregon: we worked in 2020 with communities across the state of Oregon to develop an LGBTQ2SIA+ student success plan. That plan brought into practice a number of supports for students. In 2021, the Oregon legislature codified and funded the implementation of that plan with $2 million dollars per biennium and grant funding to provide supports for our students across the state of Oregon. There are also some education-inclusive standards and instructional requirements. In Oregon, health education requires human sexuality education that that families can opt out of, but that comprehensive human sexuality education must be inclusive of materials, language and strategies that recognize different sexual orientation and gender identities and gender expression.

We also have just two more for you, I’ll try to be quick! In our social sciences standards here in Oregon, we also include ethnic studies standards, which are inclusive of LGBTQ communities and identities. And our Menstrual Dignity Act that was passed by the Oregon Legislature in 2021 ensures that there’s free access to menstrual products to students of all genders in every student bathroom.

Miller: So you laid out a lot of things there, and it seemed like the majority of them are based on either state or federal laws, some of which have been challenged in court and have withstood those challenges, as well as, say, state curriculum standards. But the ODE guidance I was talking about, it seems like it’s guidance, as opposed to requirements. So how much flexibility do individual districts have with respect to these issues?

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Gill: I think that the challenge there is how districts come into compliance with all the nondiscrimination laws. So our guidance provides a pathway for school districts, to understand how they can be supportive of all students across the different settings and how they identify themselves in our student systems, what pronouns that they choose to use at school, how they can be able to use restrooms in safe ways that match the the gender that they identify as. And so our guidance provides a pathway for that. There could be other pathways that school districts could choose to ensure that their students are not discriminated against or harassed or bullied as well.

Miller: What does this look like in smaller districts or in more rural areas?

Gill: That’s a great question. So we do want to be clear that we have LGBTQ community students in schools across the state of Oregon, regardless of school size. We don’t collect information as a requirement for our students as they register for school, but students in Oregon do have the right to identify when they register for school as male, female or non-binary. But we have some survey data that shows that 8% of our students identify as transgender gender, gender-expansive or questioning. And about one in three students identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or something else, or questioning. So, it’s really important for all the communities in Oregon to understand that they have students in their community who identify, and that they provide the supports for them. Now, while not every school has a wide variety of supports because of the school size and access to counseling and other supports in Oregon, is a real challenge, and that’s something that the student success act is helping us overcome.

Miller: Well if transgender students in whatever district feel like their school is not adequately supporting them, what can they do? What recourse do they have?

Gill: A couple of different things. So, clearly they can contact the Oregon Department of Education, and we are happy to come in and help the school district and the community understand the laws that are in place, and the number of resources that we have available to support students. We also have a number, in Oregon, of LGBTQ2SIA+ community-based organizations that serve statewide and exist in some of our smaller communities, and can partner with school districts to help create gender-inclusive guidelines and supports for all students.

Miller: I want to go back to something you said earlier just to make sure that I heard it right. Did you say that Oregon K-12 students, that one in three of them now identify as gay or lesbian or questioning?

Gill: Yeah. That data is from the 2020 Oregon Student Health Survey. We provide that survey in partnership with the Oregon Health Authority. It’s voluntarily taken by school districts, and students choose whether they want to participate in grade 6, 8 and 11 in Oregon. And the results of that survey from 2020 show that one in three students are identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, something else or questioning.

Miller: Just briefly, a week and a half ago, members of a conservative activist group protested Salem Kaiser’s newly announced policies. One of their main points is that broadly, parents should have more power to decide what their kids are learning and how they’re being treated in school. Broadly speaking, how do you think about the extent or the limits on parental control when it comes to basic issues like how organ students are treated in schools?

Gill: I think that the critical term that you shared in that question is how our students are treated in schools. Students with minority and gender identities and sexual orientations feel unsafe in schools. And we have clear data around that. So that same survey I mentioned, as well as previous Oregon Healthy Teen surveys and other surveys from GLSEN show that the day-to-day experiences of bullying, discrimination, bias, erasure or othering that many of our LGBTQ2SIA+ students are facing creates conditions that challenge their well-being and their access to academic success. So, you know, just a few of those statistics are that students who are non-binary have lower rates of graduation and regular school attendance compared with male and female students. 61% of our LGBTQ identifying students report being bullied at school. Our LGBTQ students are three times as likely to miss school due to fear, and 2-3 times as likely to experience sexual assault.

Miller: I just want to be clear about the larger argument here you’re making. If I understand correctly, is that student lives and safety and well being, it trumps the idea of parental rights in this case.

Gill: So, I don’t think that it trumps the idea of parental rights, but it does put our focus and energy toward ensuring that our schools are safe and inclusive for every single community member. So, every student, every parent, every family member. Individual parents, clearly in Oregon law, if they choose not to participate in the sexual education courses or portions of those, they can opt out of those. So, parents do have rights in that way, but we need to make sure that every single student in our school feels welcome and appreciated for who they are.

Miller: Colt Gill, thanks very much.

Gill: Okay, thank you.

Miller: Colt Gill is the director of the Oregon Department of Education.

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