Anonymous parents demand Hanover schools out transgender students to families
Click above to listen to an interview with Peter D'Auria, a reporter covering education for VTDigger. D'Auria broke the story and spoke with All Things Considered host Peter Biello about his reporting.
An anonymous group of parents of children in Hanover schools has hired a Concord-based attorney representing to “demand” that the School Board repeal or change its policy relating to transgender or gender nonconforming students.
School officials say this is the first time the policy, which has been on the books since 2016, has gotten such criticism and there are no plans to amend it.
The policy, often known by its reference code “JBAB,” prevents school employees from revealing a student’s transgender or gender-nonconforming status to other people, including parents, except when the school employee is legally required to release such information or when the student has authorized such a disclosure. It also requires that people address students using pronouns that correspond with their gender identity.
In an October letter to Richard Johnson, then-chairman of the Hanover School Board, and SAU 70 Superintendent Jay Badams, the parents’ attorney, Richard Lehmann, said his clients object to the policy because it “invites school personnel to insert themselves in their role as parental proxy and to hide important facts from a child’s parents.”
Additionally, Lehmann said in the letter first obtained by VTDigger, the policy violates First Amendment rights of those who object to using pronouns other than those that correspond to a person’s biological sex. He asserted that the policy is in violation of federal privacy laws, which require that parents have access to student records, and that it contradicts the district’s own policies that encourage collaboration with parents. He also said that the policy conflicts with Title IX, which prevents discrimination based on sex.
“Nothing in any other school policy encourages school officials to maintain the secrecy of student activities from parents,” Lehmann wrote. “Students who are transgender or gender nonconforming, however, are singled out for disparate treatment under policy JBAB and are intentionally deprived of the nurture and support of the child’s parents that comes with parental engagement.”
The policy was first adopted in 2016, but school officials said Lehmann’s letter was the first complaint they have received about it.
“I was aware of the policy,” Johnson, who is now chairman of the Dresden School Board, said in a phone interview this week. This was the “first time I was even cognizant of someone having a potential issue with it.”
Rather than a push to address something specific in Hanover and Norwich schools, Johnson said he suspects the letter was inspired by issues in the broader zeitgeist.
“My sense is this is coming out of a national playbook somewhere,” he said.
Johnson said he couldn’t speak for the anonymous parents, but given the active national debates about issues such as critical race theory, masks and vaccine mandates, he said, “I think this is potentially an attempt to influence local governments and local school boards.”
Lehmann said that the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant that most students learned at home at least for a while, gave parents a glimpse into how schools operate that they hadn’t had previously. In cases such as this gender identity policy and with how schools deal with issues such as race, school leaders have gotten ahead of some people’s cultural attitudes, he said, and it ought to be school leaders’ job to appeal to “the broadest possible constituency.”
In the October letter, Lehmann pointed to one specific activity in Hanover schools that prompted concern from the parents he represents. He said high school students were required to state a gender identity and associated pronouns on the first day of school and that students who didn’t want to participate were chastised by school officials. He alleged that the requirement violated the students’ First Amendment rights.
He said he was not aware of the Dresden policy being enforced, but said that he, and the parents he represents, might not know if it was.
Outside of the Upper Valley, Lehmann is among the attorneys representing a student-athlete who alleges that the Exeter School District and an assistant principal have violated his religious rights and freedom of speech by suspending him from a football game after he refused to recognize some other students’ gender identities, according to the Associated Press. The school district responded last month saying that the student was benched, but not suspended, for using disrespectful language, WMUR reported.
He said he’s also involved in a similar case in Gilford, and added: “There will be more.”
Lehmann also serves as legal counsel to the New Hampshire state Senate. He told VTDigger that that position is not related to his work in Hanover.
Johnson said Dresden’s JBAB policy language came, in large part, from a sample policy provided by the New Hampshire School Board Association.
“My sense is other school districts in New Hampshire have (a) very similar policy,” he said.
The policy originated in 2015, prior to Will Phillips’ arrival at the association as its staff attorney and director of policy services, but Phillips said it’s his understanding that it was generated in response to requests from “multiple New Hampshire school boards/districts for a sample policy addressing transgender students” and that it was based on policies available nationally.
The association has categorized the policy as “optional,” which indicates “that local preferences over such a policy remain with local school boards,” Phillips said in an email.
The district’s policy also is in alignment with the Vermont Agency of Education’s best practices for schools regarding transgender and gender nonconforming students, Badams said.
“The bottom line is we want to protect all of our students, including our transgender students and gender-nonconforming students,” Badams said. “We’ll continue to act in their best interest as best we understand it.”
In a September message to Marion Cross School families, Greg Bagnato, coordinator of student support services, outlined the school’s approach to gender identity privacy, the use of names and pronouns in accordance with a child’s gender identity, as well as allowing students to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.
“It has been fantastic to see staff and students spending time building strong and supportive communities in their classrooms in order to support all our learners,” Bagnato wrote in the Sept. 17 letter. “The essence of this work is to ensure that every student or family feels that they belong and are valued.”
In addition to the parents Lehmann represents, Norwich resident Stuart Richards also has expressed his displeasure with the district’s approach to transgender issues in recent School Board meetings. His concerns have focused on issues relating to athletics, physical education and access to restrooms, according to minutes of a Dec. 2 SAU 70 policy committee meeting.
Richards declined to comment on the issue when reached by phone on Wednesday.
Beyond Lehmann’s clients and Richards, other people have been supportive of the district’s approach, Badams said.
In some cases, community members have reached out to Badams to “implore me to maintain the policy as it stands,” he said. They have told him how important it is for students to feel supported at school as they work to understand their gender identity and how difficult it can sometimes be for young people to come out at home.
“There’s no question we’re in an Ivy League college town here,” Badams said. “It’s a very progressive area.”
Lehmann attended a Dec. 2 policy committee meeting at which he again outlined his clients’ concerns about the JBAB policy. On Wednesday, Lehmann said he plans to send Badams a proposal for how Dresden’s policy might be amended in order to protect transgender students, while also giving parents access to information about their children and allowing for freedom of speech.
At this point, the district has no plans to change the policy, Johnson said.
“As a board we have not done anything,” Johnson said, noting that changing the policy would be “premature” given that the board is “not sure what’s being asked or who’s asking it.”
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