The Omaha Public Schools board is moving forward with policies protecting transgender students despite intense opposition from some community members who said the district would be opening a “Pandora’s box” that could threaten the safety and privacy of other students.

During a two-hour public comment period, opponents invoked Sodom and Gomorrah and argued that transgender students were troubled and confused, requiring help and compassion but not public accommodations. Altogether, 20 people urged the school board to vote against expanding any policies to include transgender students, while five spoke in support.

“You don’t need boys going to girls bathrooms, you don’t need girls going to boys bathrooms. … It’s an appalling thing when you try to make it all inclusive,” Charles Billups said. “You’re asking for more trouble. It’s like opening Pandora’s box. You’re trying to destroy the very fabric of what America is all about.”

Speakers warned that victims of abuse and other students would be further traumatized by sharing bathrooms and locker rooms if the OPS board added gender identity and gender expression to its nondiscrimination policy.

However a transgender student from Central High and a survivor of sexual abuse said that transgender students merely want safe spaces to go to the bathroom or change for gym class.

“I love to learn and I’m dedicated and passionate about my education,” the transgender student said. “I want to focus on those goals. I don’t want my identity to be an issue. It’s not fair to turn my gender identity into a huge political statement, when it’s just who I am.”

A woman who survived sexual abuse, Billie Grant, defended transgender students and said she wouldn’t feel threatened if they shared the restroom or locker room with her.

“Will you see (students) as people who need a safe space to wash their face after P.E. or urinate before a test, or will you see them as predators?” Grant said.

Board member Yolanda Williams said she was disgusted by some of the “pure hatred and bigotry” she heard directed at OPS students by speakers, which prompted one woman opposing the policy to stand up and yell from the crowd that she was not “a bigot or a hater.”

The often fiery and impassioned opinions came as the OPS board weighed two separate issues regarding transgender students: Whether to expand its anti-discrimination policy to add gender identity and expression and whether the district should craft guidelines on transgender accommodations similar to those of the Bellevue Public Schools.

The board gave unanimous, first-round approval to an updated anti-discrimination policy that would include gender identity and gender expression. The measure will require another vote by the board before it could become official. That vote is scheduled for next month.

The board didn’t take a formal vote on whether it should craft more detailed guidelines for transgender students, but board members indicated that they wanted staff to start getting input from parents, students and staff to craft a policy and bring it before the board at a future date. This more detailed guidance would address such things as bathrooms.

Written in 2014, the anti-discrimination policy already forbids discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, disability and age, but it does not specifically mention gender identity.

Board members first indicated that they’d be open to adding gender identity and expression to the district’s anti-discrimination policy in June, after the Obama administration issued guidelines advising public schools and colleges to accommodate the needs of transgender students or risk forfeiting federal funds.

Nebraska joined nine other states in suing the federal government last month, asking the courts to nullify the guidelines, which instructed schools to allow students to use the bathrooms or locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity. More than $300 million in federal school funding could be on the line if the U.S. Department of Education cracked down on schools they deemed noncompliant, Nebraska officials said.

The guidance also tackled dress codes, student pronouns and name changes, sports participation and accommodations on overnight field trips.

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson and Gov. Pete Ricketts have said the Obama administration overstepped its bounds by reinterpreting Title IX, the federal education and civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sex, to include gender identity.

But several board members Monday said OPS had an obligation to work with transgender students and their families to help them feel comfortable and accepted at school. In June, board members said a proactive OPS policy outlining how to accommodate transgender students could help blaze a path for other school districts struggling to navigate the fraught issue.

“Our job is to have uncomfortable conversations that result in safe, welcoming environments for our students,” said board member Tony Vargas.

Bellevue adopted rules in October that allow transgender students to dress, use the bathroom and be called the name and pronoun that corresponds with their gender identity.

OPS should craft a similar policy that spells out how school staff should deal with transgender students, said board member Marian Fey

“We don’t have to make this up,” she said. “There’s school districts out there who have already done this.”

And, she said, “the sky has not fallen and the ground has not opened up in these other schools.”

Currently, the district works with requests from transgender students and families on a case-by-case basis, which several speakers said negated the need for a formal policy.

“If a child is transgender, they can approach their principal and make private accommodations,” said retired educator Barbara Gard.

“Just because it’s happening across the country, doesn’t mean it has to be in Omaha, Nebraska,” said Pastor Eileen McCarty. “We know God made male and female.”

Board member Matt Scanlan asked OPS lawyers if the district should wait and see how the issue shakes out on a national level.

This month, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an order that allows a Virginia school board to temporarily bar a transgender student from using the boys’ bathrooms while the case makes its way through appeals courts.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1210, erin.duffy@owh.com

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Reporter - Education

Erin is an enterprise reporter for the World-Herald. Previously, Erin covered education. Follow her on Twitter @eduff88. Phone: 402-444-1210.

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