Minnesota 'toolkit' addresses transgender issues
EAST GRAND FORKS, Minn. — The "toolkit" to protect the rights of transgender students, which recently was distributed to Minnesota school superintendents, "was given to us as a guide" and is not legally binding, said East Grand Forks Superintendent Mike Kolness.
"The Toolkit for Ensuring Safe and Supportive Schools for Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Students" was approved last month by an advisory council of the Minnesota Department of Education.
The 10-page document was developed to combat bullying and provide guidelines for school officials to support transgender and gender-nonconforming students.
In approving it, "I think the committee wanted to be forward-thinking," Kolness said. "This is a hot topic nationally and within the state. They're trying to give us help. This is new territory for all of us."
The Minnesota School Board Association, which was represented on the council, voted against the toolkit, Kolness said.
The MSBA "is not opposed to transgender (rights) — and they wanted us to know that — but they thought some of the information in the toolkit would be tough for school districts to implement."
"I think there are going to have to be some policies developed" on issues surrounding transgender students, Kolness said.
Minnesota schools will be looking to the MSBA for guidance on those policies — the crafting of which the association "is probably working on right now," he said.
Kolness wants to make sure any policies that are developed "are a fit for our community," he said.
"Ultimately, the school board adopts our local policies."
In Minnesota, studies show that transgender and gender nonconforming students in ninth through 11nth grade report elevated levels of bullying and harassment, the toolkit states.
Data from the Minnesota Student Survey reveal that 31 percent of transgender and gender nonconforming students have attempted suicide and 61 percent had seriously considering attempting suicide.
The East Grand Forks school district has a "very extensive policy" that deals with bullying and harassment, Kolness said.
"We want to protect every child and staff member in our district," he said. "I think we do a good job of educating our staff, and our staff is very welcoming."
Although no specific changes are planned in school facilities or practices based on the toolkit, Kolness said, "we will be discussing these things with our staff."
"We will look at things on a case-by-case basis, and make good decisions for everybody," he said.
Kolness told the Herald he has not heard any reaction concerning the toolkit from parents or other members of the public.
He said he has read it several times and has shared it with members of the East Grand Forks School Board, but had not yet had a chance to discuss it with them.
In North Dakota, no similar document regarding transgender issues has been drafted, said Dale Wetzel, spokesman for the Department of Public Instruction, and no bills on the topic were presented to the 2017 Legislative Session.
Also, there are no state laws regarding the use of restrooms and locker rooms by transgender students, Wetzel said.
"The issue of transgender students' interests is not a large statewide issue, nor has it been a large issue in Grand Forks," said Grand Forks Superintendent Larry Nybladh.
In the nine years since he assumed the superintendent's position, he has seen only "very rare, isolated cases," he said. "Most years, you hear nothing about it."
In the absence of "any kind of state and federal guidelines," matters involving transgender students are handled on a case-by-case basis, he said. "That is the only way we can handle it."
If a student considers themselves "to be transgender or is transitioning to another gender, it's a very personal private matter," he said.
"We continue to have our principals deal with the issue ... in an individual, private, professional way that is respectful of students. To date, in Grand Forks, that has worked for us."