Kindergarten student spurs gender debate

A charter school in St. Paul is considering a gender inclusion policy, but some families object.

Taya Banjac

Debates over how to balance gender inclusion, privacy and religious freedom have left one St. Paul charter school divided.
The Minnesota Family Council, a Christian organization, held a meeting at the K-12 Nova Classical Academy this month after about 100 parents raised concerns over the school’s potential adoption of a new gender inclusion policy. 
Though no specifics were proposed, ideas for a plan include letting transgender and gender nonconforming students use bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice and educating students about gender identity and expression.
Similar policies have also passed in some K-12 schools and universities in Minnesota that allow students to use preferred pronouns and names. The changes address recent studies showing transgender youth have higher risks of depression and suicidal attempts.
The University of Minnesota recently allowed LGBT students to use preferred names on U Cards and has set aside $250,000 toward adding more gender-neutral bathrooms on campus.
“The most important thing is listening to the people who need it,” said Skylar Borchart, co-chair of the University’s Queer Student Cultural Center.
She said one of the best ways to create a safe environment for transgender and non-conforming students is by correctly educating people about gender, which still needs work at the University. 
Autumn Leva, director of policy and communication at MFC, said religious beliefs could make some students feel uncomfortable in intimate spaces with someone of another gender.
“Schools should not be a place of social experimentation if the highest calling of the school is to protect the privacy and safety of their students,” she said.
Leva said laws used to support any potential plan — like Title IX, Minnesota anti-bullying laws and the Minnesota Human Rights Act — are too broad and could also be used to argue against the policy on freedom of religion and speech grounds.
Faculty members and the school board began discussing possibly implementing a policy after two parents claimed students were bullying their 5-year-old son for wearing the girls’ uniform and a pink backpack to school.
“We can’t just hope for the best and hope that if we say, ‘Let’s be nice to all people’ that they’ll understand differences in people they’re not familiar with,” Nova Executive Director Eric Williams said. “We needed to be intentional.”
Williams said the school’s board added more detail about gender-based bullying to its anti-bullying lessons last month and created a task force last week to evaluate potential gender inclusion polices for recommendation this spring.
Some Nova parents, like Paula Rothstein, are concerned teaching about gender at such a young age will confuse children. She said the school needs an age-appropriate approach that acknowledges differences in gender expression but doesn’t condone or condemn it.
“We want [the student] to come in and express himself as he needs to,” Rothstein said. “We’re just trying to keep, within our school, the sort of policies we think are right, that we believe in.”