‘It’s time’: Wichita district policy should protect LGBTQ students

We’ve talked about it for years, and now at least one Wichita school board member says it’s time to put it in writing:

The state’s largest school district should clearly and specifically declare its commitment to protect all students — including gay, lesbian and bisexual students, transgender students, gender nonconforming students, immigrants, refugees and undocumented students.

“I’ve been kind of trying to take a slow path because it’s a big shift,” said Wichita school board member Ben Blankley, who is serving his first term on the board.

“But it’s time. . . . It’s past time,” he said. “So I think the board really has to take the first step to start that process.”

Blankley said he plans to propose revising the district’s non-discrimination statement to explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and immigration status.

Currently the statement of non-discrimination, which is printed on graduation programs and posted on the district’s website, does not include those classifications.

Blankley’s goal is timely and imperative.

A national student survey released in October showed that for the first time in a decade, transgender and gender nonconforming students are facing more hostile environments on campus.

The frequency of verbal harassment of transgender students increased between 2015 and 2017, after years of decline, according to the survey commissioned by GLSEN, formerly the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

Overall, more than 80 percent of LGBTQ students reported being harassed or assaulted at school in 2017. About one in six students reported that they were physically assaulted at school because of their sexual orientation or gender expression.

No matter what your opinion or beliefs may be on these issues, we should agree that students should feel safe at school, and no student should be bullied or abused.

“It’s about setting a positive standard for inclusion across a large school district,” Blankley said.

“These kids already exist. These employees exist. We’re not doing them any service by having incomplete, inconsistent experiences across the organization.”

Over the past several years, Kansas schools have been dealing with transgender issues more frequently. In Wichita, things like which name or pronoun a student prefers or which bathroom they use is handled on a case-by-case basis.

“It’s handled differently to make sure it works for that student, for that school environment,” district spokeswoman Susan Arensman told The Eagle in 2016. “So it’s not a cookie-cutter thing.”

Unfortunately, “case by case” too often means that transgender students don’t know what to expect if they transfer schools or get a new principal.

The Wichita district adopts standard math and reading textbooks. Districtwide standards guide how students should behave in class or walk in the hallway. But when it comes to addressing the needs of LGBTQ students, there are no spelled-out policies or procedures.

The Topeka district adopted guidelines for transgender students at school, which spell out that a student has the right to be addressed by a preferred name and pronoun, and to have access to the restroom that corresponds to their gender identity.

Blankley supports such guidelines but says his current proposal — revising the district’s non-discrimination policy — would be a crucial first step. He has the support of Steve Wentz, president of United Teachers of Wichita, who urged board members last year to expand the policy.

“I’ve had conversations with individual staff members who say, ‘Please, we need direction. We need a policy. We need something, because these are issues we’re dealing with, and we’re worried about doing the wrong thing,’” Blankley said.

“At the end of the day, it’s about creating and fostering an environment where you can be yourself in your school.”