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Transgender and gender non-conforming students who attend public schools in New Haven will benefit from several new protections from the New Haven Board of Education.

On Nov. 22, the Board of Education unanimously passed Policy 5145.53, which lists guidelines for the treatment of transgender and gender non-conforming youth in the New Haven public school system. The measure, which in part affirms that students should proceed with sports, restrooms and daily activities in line with their expressed gender identity, is intended to protect the legal rights, safety, comfort and healthy development of transgender and gender non-conforming students, and is effective immediately. Advocates lauded the victory, and the Board of Education is currently planning the logistics of the policy’s implementation. 

“I think, in general, New Haven and the Board of Education and teachers and administrators, everybody just wants students to feel loved and safe,” said Erin Michaud, L.W. Beecher Museum Magnet School of Arts and Sciences teacher. “This was one of the easiest things I’ve ever seen passed by the Board of Education, and I’ve been here for 21 years.”

According to the policy’s text, it is designed to “create a safe learning environment for all students and to ensure that every student has equal access to all school programs and activities.” It provides guidance on how schools and district staff should operate to protect student privacy, keep official records, ensure the accessibility of gender-segregated spaces like restrooms and locker rooms and navigate student participation in sports and other gender-segregated activities. The policy also reinforces existing anti-discrimination laws and mandates the provision of gender sensitivity training for district staff and students, among other things. 

Matt Wilcox, the Board of Education’s vice president, said that the policy was built off of a model policy provided by the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, or CABE. 

Though advocates like Tahnee Cookson Muhammad, a member of the New Haven LGBTQ Youth Task Force and the parent of a nonbinary child formerly enrolled in the New Haven public school system, hoped to pass the policy by the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, the process of clarifying and strengthening CABE’s model policy led to delays. 

The policy had to be reviewed by the Board of Education’s governance committee twice, as well as by district lawyers. There was also a several-week-long delay before the policy’s presentation to the Board of Education itself, once the final language had been approved. 

Muhammad said waiting was the hardest part of the process. She added that “getting it right so that it does get passed is what’s really important,” so the delays were ultimately worthwhile. 

The policy’s passage makes New Haven the first district in the state to embrace the CABE-offered policy, according to Michaud. 

Elisa Cruz, a senior at Hill Regional Career High School who is involved with the LGBTQ Youth Task Force, gave public testimony at the meeting where the transgender and gender-nonconforming youth policy was passed. She said she was “beyond proud to stand in solidarity” with transgender youth in New Haven.

The school district, Cruz shared, is notoriously proud of student diversity, and it was important for her to see the Board of Education “put their money where their mouth is” and take this step. 

Assata Johnson, also a senior at Hill Regional Career High School, said they thought it was important to advocate for other students in addition to themself, despite having never personally been put into an uncomfortable situation due to their gender identity. Johnson gave absentee testimony at the Board of Education meeting. 

“This will help get students the respect they need to feel safe in schools,” Johnson said in an interview. “When you go to school, you don’t want to have to worry about your safety, you want to focus on your education and future.”

Now that the policy has been passed, the community’s focus is shifting to the process of implementation and ensuring accountability. 

“We know it will be teachers (and our union and its leadership) who will play a key role in implementing the initiatives and values of this policy,” Dave Weidleb, a magnet resource teacher at Elm City Montessori School, wrote in an email to the News.  

Tony Ferraioli, who routinely runs LGBTQ workshops, will provide twenty 90-minute professional development trainings to the district, using funds secured from the Yale Gender Program. Ferraiolo is experienced with the process of training educators to provide a safe and respectful space for transgender children in school environments. 

Wilcox noted that he intends to ask the district for an update on the implementation process in five or six months to check on the progress of staff training and troubleshoot other implications of the policy. He noted his certainty that there would be effects from the policy that the Board of Education would need to hear about. 

“I hope that the district will make sure that schools implement this policy,” Johnson said. “And if a school is not following the policy, then hopefully the district will take this as seriously as any other complaint.” 

There are 44 schools in the New Haven Public Schools District.

Keenan Miller covers transportation in and around the Elm City. He was born and raised in Juneau, Alaska, and is a sophomore in Davenport College majoring in English and psychology.