BELFAST — The Regional School Unit 71 Board of Directors rolled out a draft proposal for a new policy regarding transgender and gender-expansive students at its Nov. 14 meeting, sparking debate about parental involvement.

Policy ACAAA seeks to foster a learning environment that is safe and free from discrimination, harassment and bullying. The policy is also designed to assist the educational and social integration of transgender and gender-expansive students in RSU 71 schools.

The policy outlines procedures for students seeking recognition as transgender or gender expansive. This recognition can be requested by the student, or by their parent(s)/guardian(s).

In such cases the student, or the student’s parent(s)/guardian(s), will contact the building administrator or the student’s guidance counselor. This contact will initiate a meeting to discuss the student’s particular circumstances and needs with regard to school-related issues. Such meetings may include the student’s parent(s)/guardian(s), a building administrator, guidance counselor or social worker, the school nurse and/or other school staff.

In a case where a student requests a meeting, but has not yet informed their parent(s)/guardian(s), the administrator would be required to discuss parent/guardian involvement with the student to avoid inadvertently putting the student at risk by contacting their parent(s)/guardian(s).

The draft policy also states the student would be notified by the building administrator prior to contacting their parent(s)/guardian(s).

While the directors all agreed the draft policy was carefully written and consistent with state and federal human rights laws, the issue of parent involvement triggered debate.

Section C of the draft policy states:

“If requested by the student, or if deemed necessary by the administration to address school-related issues, a meeting will be scheduled to discuss the student’s particular circumstances and needs. In addition to the student, and depending on the particular needs of the student, other participants in the meeting may include the parent(s)/guardian(s), a building administrator, a guidance counselor or social worker, the school nurse, and/or other school staff. Outside providers and/or a support person for the student may also be included if appropriate.

“In the case of a student who has not yet informed parent(s)/guardian(s), the administrator should first discuss parent/guardian involvement with the student to avoid inadvertently putting the student at risk by contacting their parent(s)/guardian(s).”

Board members expressed concern that such a complicated issue might not include parent/guardian involvement.

“My only issue is it’s not clear to the level of parent involvement,” said board Vice Chair Cory Seekins. “This is an emotionally complex issue. To do it without parent involvement would be to further stress the student.”

Seekins also noted the policy was not a requirement, but a recommendation, and said he would feel more comfortable with the policy if the school district acted as a mediator.

“Do parents have a right to know what their unemancipated minor is doing?” Seekins asked.

Board member Elizabeth Burnett noted that most of the provisions outlined in the draft policy were already taking place in schools throughout RSU 71.

“We’re not stepping beyond what is already required,” Burnett said. “This is what we should be doing now.”

Board member Ryan Harnden agreed.

“I understand this is pretty controversial,” Harnden said. “I think, in general, this is a necessary policy for us to have.”

The draft policy gives building administrators latitude in educational plans for transgender and/or gender expansive students, as well as how to best handle issues surrounding parent involvement.

“We want to err on the side of kids talking to adults,” said RSU 71 Superintendent Mary Alice McLean. “Parents have a right to know what’s going on with their kids legally, and ethically,” McLean told the board. “We seek to communicate with parents and we seek to help kids communicate with their parents about this very difficult issue.”

The RSU 71 board voted to approve the draft policy, with five votes to approve and three (Ryan Otis, Steve Hopkins and Cory Seekins) opposed.

With the draft policy approved, a second reading will take place at the RSU 71 Board of Directors meeting on Nov. 28. If approved at that meeting, the policy will be adopted.