Hearing on transgender protection proposal draws large, passionate crowd

A group of about 250 people attended a public hearing on regulation 225, proposing to allow students to change their gender, race with school officials without parental knowledge at the DelOne Conference Center at DelTech on Wednesday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — A tense and emotional public hearing on a state proposal aimed at protecting transgender students in Delaware schools drew more than 200 people Wednesday evening as people on both sides spoke out.

In all, 27 people spoke, with 18 voicing opposition, seven expressing support and two sharing opinions that were unclear.

At issue is Regulation 225, an anti-discrimination policy created by the Delaware Department of Education at the directive of Gov. John Carney.

Opponents say the measure infringes on parental rights, violates the Constitution and is just another form of political “indoctrination.” Supporters counter that LGBT youth are an extremely at-risk population and the proposal will help offer them some protection and certainty in a difficult time in life.

Secretary of Education Susan Bunting speaks to a group of about 250 people attended a public hearing on regulation 225, proposing to allow students to change their gender, race with school officials without parental knowledge at the DelOne Conference Center at DelTech on Wednesday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

Just as with the debate over gay rights, the issue for many hinges on whether they see transgender individuals as abnormal.

Conservative groups have rallied against the measure, urging opponents to make their voices heard, and at least eight Republican lawmakers attended the meeting.

In the regulation is language that would allow any student in a public school to go by a preferred name, require schools to accommodate all students in regard to bathroom and locker room use and let students identify as any race and gender, potentially without prior parental approval or knowledge.

The regulation states, in part, “A school may request permission from the parent or legal guardian of a minor student before a self-identified gender or race is accepted; provided, however, that prior to requesting the permission from a parent or legal guardian, the school should consult and work closely with the student to assess the degree to which, if any, the parent or legal guardian is aware of the Protected Characteristic and is supportive of the student, and the school shall take into consideration the safety, health and well-being of the student in deciding whether to request permission from the parent or legal guardian.”

The proposal was drafted by a team of superintendents, students, parents and others and unveiled in October.

After receiving more than 11,000 comments, the Department of Education announced it would reconvene the team to consider altering the measure.

Wednesday’s meeting, held at Delaware Technical Community College, illustrated how strongly people feel about the regulation, especially among opponents.

Paul Johnson speaks against regulation 225 at the DelOne Conference Center at DelTech on Wednesday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

The first portion of the meeting, lasting a little less than 90 minutes, consisted of members of the development team meeting in groups and then sharing their thoughts in front of the audience.

While nearly all participants agreed some clarification on the wording would be needed, there are some core differences among team members.

“It was shocking to me, frankly, and the tone, the tone of some of the comments was really disheartening,” complained LGBT advocate Mark Purpura. “It was dehumanizing to transgender people, and that to me was very troubling.”

Capital School Board member Ralph Taylor had a different reaction to the thousands of letters and emails the state received.

“When it comes to usurping parental rights, we have to draw a line somewhere, and that’s what I was interpreting,” he said.

Later, the meeting was opened up to public comment. The team will consider the many views received — individuals can submit comments to the Department of Education until 4:30 today — in determining whether changes should be made.

Brandi Muehlethaler speaks in favor of regulation 225 at the DelOne Conference Center at DelTech on Wednesday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

Based on the thoughts shared Wednesday night, the simplest solution for the state would be to require schools to inform and gain approval from parents before accepting a student’s gender identity.

Whether that would sufficiently quell the furor would have to be seen.

Many people are strong backers of the measure, but plenty more are fiercely against it. Some object on the grounds of parental oversight, while others fight on the grounds that anything that could be construed as accepting gender dysphoria as normal is wrong.

“What they want to do is allow the kids to be educated at a younger age, which is basically brainwash some of the younger kids,” Paul Johnston said. “The kids that have some of the problems that we’re talking about, they need counseling and stuff like that, but the one thing is, you’re biologically male and you’re biologically female. They do not belong in the teams or the bathrooms or the showers with them.”

He was applauded, the first of many instances during the public comment portion that a speaker would be greeted with kudos for his or her remarks.

Dover Councilman David Anderson and Rep. Rich Collins, a Millsboro Republican, both threatened lawsuits, insisting the department lacks legal authority to enact the regulation. Several other people called for the committee to be disbanded so legislators could decide.

LGBT advocate Mark Purpura during a meeting that 250 people attended during a public hearing on regulation 225, proposing to allow students to change their gender, race with school officials without parental knowledge at the DelOne Conference Center at DelTech on Wednesday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

A resolution instructing the Department of Education to develop guidelines prohibiting discrimination for any reason passed the House in June but has not been voted on in the Senate.

Saying the proposal “speaks to me of Common Core,” Linda Smith claimed the measure was political, handed down to Delaware by the federal government.

Supporters, naturally, took a different tack, with some even arguing the regulation does not go far enough.

“This is an at-risk group,” said Ken Currie. “There is nobody more at risk for suicides than this group, and we’re playing around the edges with marginal relief.”

Brandi Muehlethaler said the strenuous objections show why the regulation is needed, arguing that if children are uncomfortable with coming out to their parents, that’s a failure on the parents’ part.

Tara Sheldon had similar thoughts.

“The parents who are probably having the biggest problem with this are more than likely the parents who would not respect the children,” she said.

It was a statement many members of the audience did not take kindly to.

Most school districts appear not to have specific policies for providing accommodations to transgender students: Officials from the Capital, Milford, Cape Henlopen and Polytech school districts have said they deal with such issues on a case-by-case basis.

The Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association adopted regulations about transgender athletes two years ago, according to Executive Director Thomas Neubauer. Schools are allowed to set their individual policies, but they must conform with certain DIAA guidelines.

A female student who identifies as a boy, for instance, can play on a boys sports team if the student offers an official record “demonstrating legal recognition of the student’s reassigned sex,” if a doctor “certifies that the student has had appropriate clinical treatment for transition to the reassigned sex” or is in the process of transitioning or if the school agrees to classify the student as a boy.

Other schools can appeal an athlete’s eligibility to the DIAA Board of Directors if they believe “the student’s participation in interscholastic athletics would adversely affect competitive equity or safety of teammates or opposing players.”

There is no timetable when changes, if any, will be made. If alterations are judged to be major, the measure would be opened up for another public comment period.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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