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Norwich school board adopts transgender protection policy after heated debate

Norwich — After heated debate and a split vote, the Board of Education on Tuesday adopted a policy ensuring a safe environment for the protection of transgender students in city schools.

The new policy, approved 6-3 on Tuesday night, was requested by the district’s Race Equity Committee of school staff, board members and parents, Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow told the board Tuesday.

“The Norwich Board of Education (the “Board”) is committed to creating a safe, supportive and inclusive learning environment for all students that is free from discrimination, regardless of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression or any other characteristic protected by law,” the policy states. “The Board is also committed to providing every student with equal access to all Board educational programs and activities.”

The policy, accompanied by a four-page legal document governing implementation, generated lengthy, at times heated debate over whether it was necessary or appropriate for the preschool through eighth grade district.

All five Democrats, Chairman Robert Aldi, Vice Chairman Kevin Saythany, Gregory Perry, Mark Kulos and Carlene Charmelus and Republican Aaron “Al” Daniels voted in favor. Republicans Christine Distasio, Heather Fowler and Joshua Chapman voted against the policy.

Daniels, who made the motion to adopt the policy, said children become aware of their gender identity very young, and the board needs to ensure they feel safe and welcomed at school.

“This is how the kids feel,” Daniels said. “They are who they are, and they have a safe place here.”

Distasio vehemently opposed the new policy, calling it inappropriate for young students, confusing for students “who aren’t confused about their genders.” She said a young girl might go home and tell her mother that a boy was in the girls’ bathroom.

“We’re always talking about following the science with masks,” Distasio said. “If we follow the science, there are two genders, male and female.”

Daniels said school administrators would figure out “properly designated” bathrooms so that all students would be comfortable.

Perry, who teaches health classes, said biological sex is different from gender identity. He said children are taught gender norms from birth, through toys, the colors of their rooms and the way they are treated.

“Kids within society who may be labeled as one gender, but know that’s not where they are, are already feeling confused, are already subject to bullying, are already subject to all kinds of awful feelings and thinking, ‘What is wrong with me?'" Perry said. "What this policy is aiming to do is say, ‘We got your back, and we support you.’”

Fowler said she opposed the new policy because the board already has a broad anti-discrimination policy governing all students, including prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. She asked for a survey of families. Distasio asked for data on how many bullying complaints were based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Distasio said the issue is part of “the tremendous breakdown in our society,” loss of the nuclear family and loss of traditional values.

“That is part of why our society is going the way it is,” Distasio said, “the breakdown of the nuclear family. If you assess all our kids who have special needs, I could almost bet you that many of them do not have two parents at home.”

Daniels and Distasio engaged in a brief exchange, with Distasio decrying gender-affirming hormonal therapy, and expressing concern that the policy would put the schools at odds with what parents want for their children.

“We’re not doing that,” Daniels shouted. “This has nothing to do with the policy. (The policy is for) when they’re in school, that’s how we’re going to treat them.”

Chairman Aldi said the board was asked to create a new policy, because some people felt transgender students needed specific protections. He said it is appropriate for the board to address the specific request. Daniels agreed and likened the request to a request last year that the school system specifically allow articles of the Sikh faith to be worn in schools.

“To me, what this policy says is it’s creating a safe, supportive and inclusive environment for our students, for our transgender students,” Aldi said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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