Keeping vitriol out of an issue

Never underestimate the power and determination of a mother when it comes to protecting her child.

That’s the thought that went through my mind when I learned that the Washoe County School District’s policy on bathroom use by transgender students was being promoted as a stellar example by the U.S. Department of Education. The discussion of our local policy was in the context of a directive from the Obama administration that every school in the nation must allow access to the bathroom of a child’s self-identified gender or risk the loss of federal education dollars.

While there’s plenty of praise to go around on our local response to an issue that is tearing some communities apart, it was mothers who made the difference in Washoe County. After learning that some transgender children were avoiding food and water during the school day in order to lessen the risk they might have to use a bathroom, the mothers banded together to demand a solution.

They were joined in their quest by local activists from the Transgender Allies Group, who pointed out the policy of forcing transgender students to use an alternate bathroom, such as a facility in the school nurse’s office or faculty lounge, violated Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination or harassment. To its credit, the Washoe County School District worked with the mothers and the activists to construct a policy that is now a national example, allowing students to choose the bathroom or locker room of their identified gender and directing school staff to use the student’s desired name and pronoun.

It didn’t happen overnight, and the change was not welcomed by all. But the willingness of mothers like Elvira Diaz—who permitted her son, Christian, to become the public face of transgender identity—certainly helped. A sensitive feature article in the Reno Gazette-Journal about local transgender children and their parents educated our community about the issues these families face every day. Activists like Kimi Cole and Brooke Maylath persevered even when faced with hurtful attacks and ignorant statements from many state legislators, frightened by someone different from themselves.

Nationally, many were surprised when Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida, declared her support for transgender rights until they learned that her son was transgender. In a public service announcement, the conservative Congresswoman explains: “We loved him as Amanda, and now as Rodrigo.”

Although the Washoe County School District was enlightened on transgender rights, it was distressing to see how another mother, Katherine Gutierrez, was treated when she asked for copies of her child’s file to review the circumstances surrounding her son’s experience at school. He has Down syndrome, and there were accusations of maltreatment, including name calling and an overly aggressive, physical approach by a teacher. District personnel said they’d be happy to provide her the documents for a mere $373.50, deciding to strictly enforce a state law that allows the district to charge 50 cents a page for copies.

Under pressure from mothers and disability advocates, the district relented but only because it suddenly discovered Gutierrez had submitted her request just before implementation of the new policy, which will now be applied to any document request by a parent. According to reporting by the Reno Gazette-Journal, no other school district in the state charges parents for copies of a child’s records.

Gutierrez was willing to discuss the incident with the newspaper, exposing a policy that clearly has a detrimental effect on records requests, especially those from lower income families. One can readily imagine the five new school board members elected in November will revisit this policy and hopefully abandon it in favor of transparency.

If they don’t, you can count on these moms to keep fighting for their kids.