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Omaha-area school districts' policies differ for using student pronouns

From the Inside this week's Gretna Breeze: Sept. 21 series
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Gretna Public Schools is the only metropolitan area district to adopt written guidelines addressing students’ gender identity.

Most of Sarpy County’s public school districts have set guidelines on the issue, which captured public attention last month after the Omaha Archdiocese released an initial gender identity policies — which were delayed — to provide clear direction to Catholic schools.

An Omaha World-Herald survey found that four of the 11 area districts have established guidelines around gender identity. The others either rely on anti-discrimination policies or have no set directives for handling gender identity issues.

Most districts, regardless of whether they have a formal policy, stress the importance of responding on a case-by-case basis when addressing a student’s gender identity.

But for the four districts with guidelines, they largely differ on one central question: Who is in charge of a student’s gender identity status — the parents or the student?

Gretna is the only area district that has a written policy prohibiting teachers or other staff from using a student’s preferred name or pronouns without parent permission — which resembles guidelines in Nebraska’s second-largest school district, the Lincoln Public Schools.

“We are not legally bound to call a student their preferred name or pronoun unless they legally change their name but it is always best to work through these individual requests with the principal, student and parents,” the Gretna policy says.

Superintendent Rich Beran said the policy was implemented last year after recommendation from the district’s legal team. It was not passed by the school board.

“It’s best if everyone is in the know,” Beran said. “We don’t want the teachers caught in the middle of this. What they don’t think about is, for example, if you go to a conference and a parent shows up and you are calling the student by a different name, and they don’t know anything about it. Parents have the right to know.”

Beran said students who can’t get parent permission or are reluctant to tell their parents about their identity will get counseling while at school. He said it has been stressed to staff not to reach out to parents without the student’s permission.

Gretna’s policy also extends to the district’s annual training for teachers. The suicide prevention training that staff received this year instructs schools to call students by their preferred names, but teachers are instructed to follow Gretna’s policy instead, according to the district.

The Papillion La Vista Community Schools has similar guidelines to Gretna’s.

While a policy hasn’t been adopted, Annette Eyman, a district spokeswoman, said principals and assistant principals were told this year to handle each situation “on a case-by-case basis with individual students in partnership with their parents.”

“Last year, we were kind of all over the board, and some people got taken by surprise by the whole thing,” Eyman said. “So it was to try to give teachers some direction on how we want it handled.”

She said some educators are coming out of teachers colleges saying that it’s best practice to ask students for preferred pronouns, “but it’s not necessarily a practice that’s totally accepted in the community.”

“We are not the parents, and these are minor children,” Eyman said. “We don’t get to make those decisions for parents, and it’s not our role to make those decisions.”

She said there’s a lot of varied beliefs on the issue — some students are uncomfortable with being asked about their pronouns. The district’s goal is to make all students feel comfortable, she said.

“We don’t want an environment where either student, no matter what side of this issue you sit, is feeling uncomfortable,” she said.

The topic can be polarizing.

When the Omaha Archdiocese last month released its policies, which instructed Catholic schools to follow church doctrine on gender identity, some Catholics applauded the move, but multiple schools sponsored by religious orders resisted it.

Sarpy County’s Catholic schools — and St Matthew, St. Bernadette, St. Mary’s and Gross Catholic High School in Bellevue as well as St. Columbkille in Papillion — would be covered by the policies.

The archbishop then decided to delay implementation of the policies to allow for revisions, though he said the archdiocese would not compromise on “the teachings of Jesus Christ and the church.”

In Gretna, growing awareness of the district’s policy has upset some community members.

“When I heard about (the policy), my heart just broke,” said Emily Schultz, a 2020 Gretna High School graduate who identifies as pansexual and gender-fluid. Schultz served as president of the school’s Gay Straight Alliance for three years.

“I loved my experience at Gretna with the teachers that I had, they were very supportive and made me who I am. But to hear that a school put a policy in place that is not supportive of their students and is actually unsafe for their students is just heartbreaking.”

Chuck Sams, who graduated from Gretna High School in May as the student body president and identifies as LGBTQ, said when the policy was implemented last fall, some teachers still tried to keep their students’ gender identity private from parents because the students didn’t have support at home.

“A friend of mine identified not as how they were born, and their parents didn’t know. (Their) teacher was put in a very difficult situation because the home life was not necessarily the best,” Sams said. “The teacher was concerned for that student’s well-being and mental health.”

When asked about the potential negative impact on students, Beran reiterated that any student who can’t ask for parent permission will receive counseling and the district would “help them through it.”

JohnCarl Denkovich, founder of Omaha ForUs, an organization working to launch an Omaha-based LGBTQ center, said school policies like Gretna and Papillion La Vista’s prevent LGBTQ students from being themselves and have harsh consequences.

“It sets people up for an entire lifetime of trying to mitigate what they have lived through,” Denkovich said. “Whether folks are intending to be malicious or not, the impact is different than the intent and all of the data says the same thing — when youth aren’t supported in school, their grades, attendance and health suffer.”

A national study from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network published in 2020 says LGBTQ students who experience discrimination at school have worse educational outcomes and poor mental health.

Two other area school districts take a different approach to gender identity.

The Bellevue Public Schools adopted a three-page policy in 2015 that directs staff to use a student’s preferred name and pronouns. School staff can’t refuse to refer to a student by their name or pronouns that correspond to their gender identity.

Students also are allowed to dress and use bathrooms according to their gender identity.

The Omaha Public Schools — which operates six schools in Bellevue — adopted similar guidelines in 2017.

Both districts’ policies also prohibit staff from disclosing information about a student’s gender identity to others, including their parents, without permission from the student.

OPS students are allowed to select a small group of teachers, staff and students who are aware of their gender identity, according to the policy.

“This is a group of individuals who, when the student has a situation they need to talk about, they can go to them in confidentiality,” the policy says. “For transgender or gender-expansive students, having this small group of individuals identified can relieve much of the stress and anxiety of being at school.”

Gender-expansive is an umbrella term sometimes used to describe someone with a more flexible gender identity than what might be associated with a typical gender, according to the district.

The majority of other Omaha schools don’t have specific policies regarding gender identity or transgender students.

Officials from the Springfield Platteview, Millard, Westside, Elkhorn, Ralston, Bennington and Douglas County West school districts either pointed to anti-discrimination policies that encompass gender identity or said they didn’t have any guidelines at all.

Millard doesn’t have a written policy, but the district does handle a student’s gender identity status on a “case-by-case basis,” said Rebecca Kleeman, a district spokeswoman. She didn’t know if parents are involved in those cases.

In the Lincoln Public Schools, the district policy resembles the guidelines in Gretna.

The district refers to using a “team approach” to requests for pronoun or name changes to promote consistency among staff.

“If a student asks a teacher to call them by a preferred name in class but by their legal name when they talk with their parents or guardians, then we would not be able to honor that request,” the LPS policy says. “Teachers should not globally ask students their preferred pronoun during class. This is contrary to our practice of having parental approval prior to using a preferred pronoun.”

World-Herald staff writer Joe Dejka and Breeze editor Scott Stewart contributed to this report.

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