EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp.’s non-discrimination policy has been at the center of a recent controversy involving a School Board member.
A video released by Tri-State Alliance purports to show EVSC Board Member Ann Ennis appearing to make a transphobic statement toward LGBTQ activists after last week’s board meeting. Ennis though said the comments were taken out of context.
The conversation around that video has focused on TSA’s continued efforts to change EVSC’s non-discrimination policy to include transgender students. TSA is a local group that provides support and advocacy for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth
EVSC’s current non-discrimination policy, located on the district’s website under bylaws and policies states: “It is the policy of the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation not to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, veteran status, genetic information, national origin, age, limited English proficiency, or disability in its programs or employment policies as required by the Indiana Civil Rights Law.”
During public comment at the Nov. 25 school board meeting and many meetings over the last few years, TSA President Wally Paynter and volunteers from the organization have spoken out about what they call a lack of protection the district has provided for transgender students, resulting in many committing suicide.
Paynter said EVSC’s non-discrimination policy has continued to affect transgender students, as its played a part in separating trans students from their peers.
While the district has banned discrimination based on students’ sexual orientation, the policy doesn’t include gender identity.
Under the current non-discrimination policy, students are required to use the bathroom based on their assigned gender at birth.
Despite the EVSC’s current policy, the University of Evansville and University of Southern Indiana have non-discrimination and civil rights policies that include gender identity in the language. UE’s policy goes even further and includes gender expression.
Paynter said he and other members of TSA have asked EVSC school board members to address the non-discrimination policy for years.
According to Paynter, the group has asked the district to address the safety of these students following the suicide of a LGBTQ student in front of Central High School in January 2017, requests he said have been largely unmet.
“At the moment, we’re not getting any action or discussion,” Paynter said. “And when we speak at the school board meetings, they know what we’re asking and all we hear is silence.”
The group first requested sexual orientation and gender identity to be added to the school corporation’s non-discrimination policy in 2017. Though sexual orientation was added at a June 2017 meeting, gender identity remains outside EVSC bylaws.
In the past, the EVSC has relegated its refusal to change the non-discrimination policy to restrictions under Indiana law.
In February 2018, a transgender EVSC high school student filed a lawsuit against the school corporation. The student, who was identified as J.A.W. in the suit, claimed he experienced unlawful discrimination after his request to use the men’s bathroom was denied by school associates.
According to the complaint, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the former EVSC student was denied usage of the men’s restroom and directed to a gender-neutral bathroom in the school nurse’s office.
However, the office wasn’t always available, and the student was forced to use the women’s restroom or he would face discipline from staff, according to the complaint.
The student claimed his rights were violated under the 14th Amendment and Title IX, which prohibit institutions like school districts from discrimination and bias based on sex.
During a 90-minute court injunction hearing between J.A.W. and EVSC Superintendent David Smith in July 2018, Smith testified that the district has an “objective standard” in bathroom usage, and a child’s birth certificate is the standard.
The superintendent testified that if a birth certificate or a comparable document was changed to identify the student as male, the student then could use the male restroom.
At the time, Indiana law required a change on a birth certificate to transpire after a sex change. This law is no longer in place under state guidelines.
In June, U.S. District Court Senior Judge William Lawrence ruled against EVSC for violating civil rights protections by not allowing a transgender boy to use the school’s men’s restroom.
Lawrence wrote that EVSC’s practices – allowing transgender students to use gender-neutral restrooms but not restrooms corresponding to their gender identity – violated Title IX, whether or not the school district knew it affected any specific student like the boy named in the case.
The school district did not provide facts that showed it had “any policy other than one requiring transgender students to use a bathroom that did not conform with their gender identity,” Lawrence wrote.
Since the ruling, Paynter said TSA members have asked the school board to avoid appealing the lawsuit, and instead, use the funds to increase teacher salaries and improve local schools.
Paynter insists the group will continue to attend school board meetings and call for the EVSC to provide protection for LGBTQ and transgender students and change the district’s current non-discrimination policy.