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District meets needs of trans students
Transgender students have requested the use of bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity, but after discussions with family and school administration on how to meet their needs, the students instead chose single-occupant bathrooms, Monroe High School Principal Chris Medenwaldt said in an email. (Times photos: Marissa Weiher)
MONROE - Gender identity issues sprung to the forefront of American consciousness last year when Caitlyn Jenner - formerly known as Bruce Jenner - announced she's a transgender woman. It was perhaps the most visible the topic of gender identity has ever been in the United States.

But the topic isn't new. Joe Monroe, director of pupil services, said the Monroe school district has handled issues with gender identity before.

"We've been dealing with these kinds of needs for years," Monroe said. "I think what's changing is the - is the culture and our community's view of how we serve people who have gender identity issues."

There are currently at least two transgender students enrolled in the district, Monroe said. He emphasized that he couldn't speak about anything specific because of student privacy issues but said the district has historically worked with transgender students and their families individually to find ways to accommodate their needs.

So far, that's meant giving the students access to single-occupant bathrooms and separate dressing accommodations in place of locker rooms at the high school.

"We work very hard to work with individual students and their families to make decisions that are respectful of their needs and everyone else involved," Monroe said.

Transgender students have requested the use of bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity, but after discussions with family and school administration on how to meet their needs, the students instead chose single-occupant bathrooms, Monroe High School Principal Chris Medenwaldt said in an email. He noted these types of accommodations have also been made for other students.

Some districts in Wisconsin have enacted policies that allow transgender students to use their preferred bathrooms or have provided gender-neutral, multiple-occupancy bathrooms open to any student. Both of these solutions could be banned by the state bill that was proposed in November by Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, and Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater.

The bill would require multiple-occupancy restrooms and changing rooms in schools be designated for "the exclusive use of pupils of only one sex," determined by the gender an individual was assigned at birth. It also requires school districts to provide separate accommodations for transgender students. Kremer offered a revision to the bill that would allow gender-neutral bathrooms if each stall has floor-to-ceiling doors and walls or partitions, with no gaps to see into a stall.

Rep. Todd Novak, R-Dodgeville, said he doesn't support the bill in its current form because it applies a one-size-fits-all solution across diverse school districts.

"I look at it as kind of a local control thing," Novak said. "I believe that it should be dealt with (by) each individual school district, the residents of that school district, to come up with a policy if the issue ever arises that fits the school and the community the best."

He said he's spoken to several superintendents in his assembly district who have indicated that school districts want to handle gender identity issues locally. And he said

he knows there are other legislators who feel the same way.

"If it comes out of committee, I don't expect it to come out in the current form it's in, because there are concerns with the bill," Novak said.

One of those concerns could be legal. The U.S. Department of Education has asserted in cases in Virginia and Illinois that policies similar to the bill's current form violate transgender students' civil rights.

Michael Boehme, the Monroe school board's deputy clerk, told the board at a meeting in November that the legislation - if passed - could make schools vulnerable to lawsuits, with the state and federal governments saying two different things. Boehme later declined to speak about the bill, saying it would only be conjecture until the bill is in its final form.

The Wisconsin Association of School Boards contends that schools might risk losing their federal funding if they complied with the state bill, pointing to a case where the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights found an Illinois school district in violation of anti-discrimination laws for imposing restrictions on a transgender girl's use of girls locker rooms.

Monroe said the Monroe school district is trying to take a "proactive stance" rather than focusing only on the legal issues. For example, the district is trying to create a more positive and inclusive learning environment by having "safe zones," where individuals are trained to be supportive of LGBT students, Monroe said.

MHS' Gay-Straight Alliance provides another supportive environment. According to its mission statement, the group "is an all-inclusive support group, an alliance between straight students and LGBTQ students, that encourages people to be themselves."

While the group doesn't focus entirely on transgender issues, GSA's open discussions and workshops have included gender issues, GSA's advisors said in an email. The advisors are Carolyn Schultz, Rachel Showers - both English teachers - and Michelle Kister, a Spanish teacher.

Students, teachers and support staff at MHS can participate in the group's events, which draw between five to 25 people, depending on the event, the advisors said.

They said they hope any legislation will help them "continue to provide a safe and inclusive environment for ALL students."

Monroe emphasized safety for transgender students.

"It's a serious issue, because we're talking about kids' lives here," he said, noting suicide rates among transgender people.

A 2011 survey by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and National Center for Transgender Equality found that 41 percent of people who are transgender or gender-nonconforming attempt suicide at some point in their lives. That's almost nine times higher than the national average of 4.6 percent.

"One of my biggest responsibilities as director of pupil services is to ensure the safety of all of our children, and ignoring this issue does not accomplish that," Monroe said. "That's not a risk I'm willing to take for any child, and so we're doing our absolute very best to serve the needs of the kids while making sure that others in the community are being heard as well."

- The Associated Press contributed to this story.