WINDHAM — Windham has joined a handful of New Hampshire school districts in implementing a policy that prevents discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation and gender identity.
The policy was approved 4-0 at the School Board's Jan. 30 meeting after more than a year of conversation. It was enacted right away.
The policy specifies that transgender students are allowed to access locker rooms and restrooms that match the gender they identify with. It also states that a student has the right to be addressed by a name or pronoun that corresponds with their gender identity.
Board member Tom Murray was not present for the vote, but submitted an email to be read aloud expressing his opposition to the language as written.
Following the meeting, Murray appeared as a guest on a local radio talk show, where he continued to speak against the practice, claiming on air that a large percentage of Windham parents agree with him.
Murray argues it's enough that "the district is already required to protect students from bullying on the basis of gender identity."
"Students may, for a variety of reasons, feel that the communal showers, lockers, and restrooms at their school (and lodging on overnight trips) do not afford them sufficient privacy," he went on to write. "In such circumstances, students and parents have the right to request that the school reasonably accommodate the student's privacy needs. This could include ensuring the availability of single-stall restrooms and changing areas. But under no circumstances can anyone be compelled by school officials to share intimate spaces with members of the opposite biological sex."
Murray believes instead that parents should be allowed to have discussions about gender identity and sexual orientation with their children in their own time, "and in a manner consistent with their values and beliefs."
He closed his letter by writing, "School officials cannot command their students to accept or celebrate ideas, values, or beliefs regarding sexual orientation and gender identity."
School board member Keleigh McAllister at the meeting read a statement she prepared ahead of time, disagreeing with Murray's claim that existing bullying laws are enough to protect transgender students.
"The concern from administrators, students and their families is that informal practices are no longer adequate," she said.
She was supported by fellow board members Dennis Senibaldi and Daniel Popovici-Muller.
"I've been thinking about this for a year and a half. This in particular because it's potentially inflaming to a community," Popovici-Muller said. "And what it came down to for me ... was believing the freedom of every person to be who they want to be."
Senibaldi said he has seen a lot of support for the policy on social media. He noted that, "unequivocally I have received zero feedback about this as far as it being a bad thing."
A senior member of the board, Senibaldi said it's rare to not be inundated with calls and emails about a new policy if it's controversial.
"I'm mystified by claims that there are hundreds of people who are against this," he said.
Several residents attended the meeting to speak on the topic. All but one were supportive of it.
Among supporters was a transgender Windham High student, Michael Markham, who is president of the school's Gay/Straight Alliance and one of six students who traveled to Concord last week to advocate for legislation being considered that equalizes transgender rights.
"If the school makes a leap forward with this before the state even does, it's just going to make it a whole lot easier for people like me in the future," he said. "It's going to provide the childhood they need to live the life they need."
Maura Sampson, an English teacher and adviser of the Gay/Straight Alliance, said the after-school organization has grown from 14 members to 38 members over the last three years.
"Kids are getting more comfortable being who they are," she said. "I've seen it myself since I started advising this group."
She said all of the transgender students she knows at the high school use the restroom in the nurse's office, to avoid the skeptical looks and questions that may come with using gender-specific bathrooms in the school.
"There's one thing I know of for sure. And it's that high school is difficult for everyone," she said. "Everyone is worried about the welfare of their children and stress on their children, but no transgender student that I know is actively trying to make things more difficult for themselves or anyone else. High school is hard enough."