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RFSD’s 'gender toolkit' promotes inclusivity, advises staff to affirm gender-nonconforming students

Basalt High School
Most of the speakers during a Roaring Fork School District board of education meeting were supportive of the district’s efforts to affirm transgender and gender-nonconforming students. 

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Some of the situations addressed in the toolkit include using a student’s chosen name and pronouns and allowing students to use the bathroom of their gender identity. It advises teachers to work with students and families to create a support plan that fits those individual needs.

Some of the guidance is broader than individual students, such as providing resources to help teachers create more-inclusive classroom spaces.

The toolkit suggests having everyone introduce themselves with their names and pronouns, using gender-neutral language such as “friends” or “scholars” instead of “boys and girls” or “ladies and gentlemen,” and avoiding grouping people by gender — for example, instead of splitting up a class into boys and girls, divide them by birthday month or height or in alphabetical order).

The toolkit also includes ways that a broader school community can be more welcoming to gender-nonconforming students, such as with its dress code and with gendered activities. For example, schools may not want to require that girls wear dresses or skirts and that boys wear ties for formal events. It also suggests, for example, that instead of a girls chorus, the instructor could divide students into sopranos, altos, tenors and basses.

The toolkit is something district officials say they’ve been working on for a while, and say they’ve been doing a “soft rollout” in schools.

This past week, the district's new superintendent, Jesus Rodriguez, wrote an op-ed column in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent in which he outlined the ways support for LGBTQ+ students and staff is important to the district.

“While I know not everyone will be personally comfortable with trans or nonbinary gender identities in our schools, I do expect that, at a bare minimum, all of our students, staff and visitors respect and honor each other’s names, pronouns, genders and sexual orientations,” he wrote. “The humane act of affirming gender identities, respecting pronouns and affirming sexual orientation can save lives and undoubtedly will create a stronger sense of belonging for all of our students, which will surely bring us closer to fulfilling our mission.”

During Wednesday’s board of education meeting, district officials said they have been working with students — as well as other school districts and local experts — to develop the policies.

Anna Cole, the district’s chief of student and family services, told board members that what they have heard from students and families is a call to action.

“This data is really hard for all of us who love and care about kids in our community to look at, and to really grapple with, and it underscores that we’re not doing enough,” she said. “The discrepancy here with the percentage of high school students who seriously considered attempting suicide in the past 12 months: Our gender queer, nonbinary-identifying kids are far more at risk of this.”

Cole said feedback from students throughout the process has been invaluable.

The toolkit, she said, "is continually evolving. As we learn more, we’re updating it. When we know we can do better, we try to do better — it’s a work in progress.”

Dr. Matt Pearcy, medical director of Mountain Health Family Centers’ clinic in Rifle, on Wednesday commended the district’s work on the toolkit. Pearcy said the district’s guidance could help save lives.

“We can all help improve this by using students’ preferred names and pronouns,” he said. “In fact, transgender and nonbinary youth who report having their pronouns respected by all or most people in their lives attempted suicide at half the rate of those who didn’t.”

Jax Carpenter, a senior at Roaring Fork High School, told the board that such policies have already made a material difference for students.

“Instead of being worried about being dead-named or the wrong pronouns being used, I just kind of have to worry about, OK, what homework do I have, what schoolwork do I have,” Carpenter said. “It makes it easier for me to just really focus on what’s important.”

Some commenters during Wednesday’s meeting were critical of the toolkit, mainly regarding bathroom and locker-room use by transgender and gender-noncomforming students. But the majority expressed gratitude for the district’s support of LGBTQ+ students and staff.

That includes Kathryn Camp, whose son is a freshman at Roaring Fork High. Camp told the board that when her son came out as transgender, he was treated differently by his peers.

Camp said teachers and staff have been supportive of her son, and she is hopeful that the gender toolkit will also help kids understand their classmates better.

“Whether it’s a new pronoun or new language around gender identity that they’re not used to, … when kids who don’t understand have the tools, then all of a sudden, maybe it becomes safe to be seen with a kid who’s different,” she said.

Caroline Llanes is a general assignment reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering everything from local governments to public lands. Her work has been featured on NPR. Previously, she was an associate producer for WBUR’s Morning Edition in Boston.