Lincoln school cites irrelevant federal memo in defending gender training

MEMO: Last week, the Lincoln school board defended its gender sensitivity training, citing a federal memo that actually relates to sexual violence, not gender training.

By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog

LINCOLN, Neb. — Last week, the Lincoln school board defended its controversial teacher training on gender inclusivity by citing a federal memo related to a federal civil rights law, but it turns out that memo offered guidance to schools as to how they should handle sexual violence between students of the same gender.

School board member Katie McLeese Stephenson cited a federal memo on Title IX while defending the Lincoln Public School district’s stance on gender training, saying the law requires the school district to train teachers. However, the memo she cited as evidence of a “clear legal obligation” to train teachers on gender sensitivity was actually a memo about sexual violence as it pertains to Title IX.

Title IX is a federal civil rights law that bans sex discrimination in federally funded education programs and activities. All public schools, colleges and universities that receive federal funds must comply with the law.

The school district has been under fire since Oct. 1 after teachers in a middle school were given training guidelines suggesting they not refer to students as “boys and girls” but instead less gender-specific terms like campers, readers or even contrived mascots like Purple Penguins. The story made national news and hundreds of citizens have showed up at school board meetings to talk about the issue. Dissatisfaction with the school district led to the creation of a parental rights group, which plans to find candidates to run in the spring election, when three of the seven board members are up for election.

McLeese Stephenson, who chairs a three-person policy subcommittee, said during the school board meeting last week that the subcommittee met Nov. 3 and concluded no LPS policies had been violated, as alleged by some citizens, and no policy changes were needed.

She cited an April 29 U.S. Education Department memo that said Title IX’s ban on sex discrimination extends to claims of discrimination based on gender identity “or failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or feminity and the OCR (Office of Civil Rights) accepts such complaints for investigation. Similarly, the actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity of the parties does not change a school’s obligations.”

“There is a clear legal obligation for district administration to prepare teachers to meet the needs of all students,” McLeese Stephenson said after reciting a portion of the memo.

However, the portion she read was talking about how schools should handle sexual violence complaints when the victim and perpetrator are of the same sex. The memo says schools must respond appropriately regardless of the sexes of the parties involved.

The Nebraska Family Alliance did a legal analysis of the issue raised by McLeese Stephenson and concluded the memo was taken out of context and nothing in Title IX requires schools to do gender inclusiveness training.

In fact, they say there’s no case law or precedent that mandates such training.

“There really is no obligation that clearly states that there’s any requirement to instruct teachers or teach students about transgenderism,” said Al Riskowski, executive director of the Nebraska Family Alliance.

The memo cited by McLeese Stephenson wasn’t relevant, he said.

McLeese Stephenson and another member of the subcommittee, Kathy Danek, didn’t return phone calls seeking comment. Another member of the policy subcommittee, Barbara Baier, said in an interview that LPS legal counsel said the memo constituted “legal precedent.”

School board member Barbara Baier

Asked about the memo’s relevance to the debate, Baier didn’t directly answer but said there are a number of legal precedents that require school districts to train teachers on LGBT students. She mentioned a letter from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about the civil rights of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) students.

Baier appears to be referring to a 2011 letter Duncan sent to school districts warning them not to ban students from forming gay-straight alliances and support groups in schools.

“I’m not an attorney,” Baier said in an interview. “But from what I read… we as a school district have to stand for all children, and that includes LGBT.”

Baier said, “There’s just a whole scaffolding of legal cases across the country” that are reason for LPS to train its teachers on gender issues.

She mentioned the Anoka-Hennepin School District’s 2012 settling of a lawsuit after a federal civil rights investigation and a lawsuit filed by six students alleging the Minnesota district failed to appropriately respond to harassment based on sexual orientation. Several students who were gay or believed to be gay committed suicide in 2009-2010. The settlement included a $270,000 payment to the students and a plan to improve the climate for all students.

Prior to that, the school district’s policy required staff to stay neutral on sexual orientation issues, according to the Star Tribune.

Baier said it was one of the biggest school settlements in the history of civil rights.

“I think there are a lot of school districts across the country that are becoming aware of these issues,” Baier said. “There’s a real need to… provide equitable access.”

The words lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender must be used in that training, said Baier, who is openly gay.

“Because you can’t create a safe educational environment unless you say you will stand for those kids,” she said, likening it to similar issues based on race or special needs.

Asked why the federal memo was used to justify LPS gender training, she said it was just the most recent of “things that have been coming out” on the topic.

“There are hundreds of cases across the country involving these issues,” she said. “My peers on the board are aware of them, because I have mentioned them to them.”

Updated 9:43 a.m. Monday
Follow Deena on Twitter at @DeenaNEWatchdog

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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