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PHM board tables update to policy governing student name and pronoun changes until next summer

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Penn-Harris-Madison Schools
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The Penn-Harris-Madison school board Monday tabled a proposed update to district policy regarding how students can change their name and pronouns until the next academic year.

The current language enacted by the board this past June says that for enrolling elementary and middle schoolers, requests to change names and pronouns to something different than on a birth certificate must be submitted by a parent to the school administration.

In contrast, high school students can also initiate those inquiries on their own. The proposed policy changes would have required parental consent for them as well.

But several speakers criticized that, including Michiana LGBTQ Center executive director H.R. Jung. He said data from the Trevor Project shows LGBTQ youth represent 40 percent of attempted and completed suicides in the United States, but that having an adult in their life who respects their identity significantly reduces that risk.

“A lot of those teens seek out teachers, other staff members at the school for that affirmation,” Jung said. “And this particular policy change could create barriers to that, could create a chilling effect.”

Jung also said there may be legal implications if the policy is only applied to LGBTQ students — pointing to nicknames as a different example of when students may want to be called something different than what’s on their birth certificate.

“If this isn’t carried across for every Mike, Bobby, Suzie, Alex, Zach, Lily, this could be a potential problem,” Jung said.

And a trans Penn High School student who is president of the school’s gay-straight alliance said proper pronoun use is a matter of respect.

“I know what it feels like to be misgendered, and I know what it feels like to be a constant, ongoing thing,” the student said. “It hurts.”

In addition, the student said the policy change would only impact the most at-risk students.

“I know kids who are not out to their parents because they would either be abused or abandoned,” the student said. “The best-case scenario is that my friends are misgendered for seven hours straight for five days a week. The worst-case scenario is that they are forcibly outed to their parents and placed in a dangerous situation.”

Even though the new policy language focused on adding parental consent, several parents said the district should instead not permit any changes, claiming that allowing trans students to use names and pronouns different from what’s on a birth certificate compels speech and goes against their personal and political beliefs.

Following public comment, several board members said the mental health implications of the language need to be examined further.

And since the district already has a policy, the board then unanimously with one abstention voted to table the proposal until next summer for the next iteration of the student handbook.

Conservatives across the United States have passed new laws targeting trans people and trans youth over the past several years. Examples include banning trans students from school sports, bans on gender affirming medical care for youth and bathroom bills, which bar transgender people from using bathrooms that match their gender identity.

Contact Jakob at jlazzaro@wvpe.org or follow him on Twitter at @JakobLazzaro.

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Jakob Lazzaro comes to Indiana from Chicago, where he graduated from Northwestern University in 2020 with a degree in Journalism and a double major in History. Before joining WVPE, he wrote NPR's Source of the Week e-mail newsletter, and previously worked for CalMatters, Pittsburgh's 90.5 WESA and North by Northwestern.