School attorney talks bathroom, locker room policy with Wadena-Deer Creek School Board
Parents in the audience were given an opportunity to ask questions, but not speak — because they hadn't followed the new public forum policy.
WADENA — Gender identity and bathroom/locker room use were once again in the spotlight at the Monday, May 15 meeting of the Wadena-Deer Creek School Board.
Pemberton Law attorney Kristi Hastings, who acts as legal counsel for the school district, was asked to address the board on the legal issues surrounding transgender students.
"We've been answering a lot of questions from the transgender students and issues regarding the bathrooms and locker rooms, and we've discussed at the last few meetings the legal advice that I've been getting and passing on to the school board, and we thought that it would probably be prudent to have our attorney stop in and give you an update on the legal issues surrounding that," said WDC Superintendent Lee Westrum.
"Our topic tonight is an overview of how we implement the laws surrounding transgender students in our schools in Minnesota," Hastings said. "First and foremost I just want to make sure that we have a respectful conversation tonight; our students are listening.
"We start from the premise that all students deserve a safe and supportive school environment — not just your traditional or mainstream students, but all students," she continued. "The source of legal codes that surround transgender students come from a variety of contexts and a variety of places."
One of them is Title IX of the federal Civil Rights Act — specifically, the education amendments to the act that were passed in 1972. "This is our federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded educational settings," Hastings said, adding that the Biden Administration had issued an executive order clarifying that "on the basis of sex" includes gender identity and sexual orientation.
"So all of those things are protected under our federal law," she said. "Title IX specifically requires schools to provide transgender students with equal access ... to programs and activities, even when other students, parents or community members might object."
Minnesota's own Human Rights Act also prevents harassment or discrimination based on "actual or perceived gender identity, and actual or perceived sexual orientation," she continued.
Hastings, who has been working with school districts on legal issues for 23 years, said that based on her experience, "one thing I can tell you is that our student-to-student interaction is going great. The students are treating each other really well. They have been raised to respect the differences in each other."
"I know that the bathroom question is at the top of people's minds tonight," she said, noting that school policies regarding gender identity and sexual orientation had come under close scrutiny in the past couple of years, since a civil court lawsuit was filed against the Anoka-Hennepin school district in 2020.
That case resulted in the district agreeing to pay $300,000 to a transgender student who was barred from using a school locker room that matched their gender identity. Hastings cautioned that if the WDC school district enacted a similar policy, they could also face legal action.
Some of the parents in attendance at Monday's meeting had requested to speak on the issue as part of a "public forum period" that was added to the school district's agenda by board action at its April meeting. However, they did not follow the proper procedures for being added to the list of speakers, and were therefore not allowed to do so.
Board member Brandon Kern addressed the audience toward the end of the meeting, noting that he had been "a little disappointed in the communication breakdown" that resulted in those requesting to speak not being allowed to do so.
"I think it's important that those people have the opportunity to speak," he said, and added that he apologized for the mixup. The audience members applauded his comments quite loudly.