A crowd of roughly 40 community members were in attendance for the November meeting of the Oak Hill Union Local Schools Board of Education; a meeting which was heavily focused on the topic of gender identity in students, specifically in relation to restroom preference.

Various posts on Facebook in recent weeks have ignited debates and solicited divisive rhetoric around the subject of an Oak Hill Middle School student who, though born a biological male, is identifying as a female, and has expressed her wish to use the restroom at the school that coincides with the child’s gender identity. A total of nine community members signed up to speak at the Nov. 17 meeting, all of whom used their time to speak out against the ability of this child to use the girls’ restroom, which is allowed by law under Title IX.

In June of this year, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued a Notice of Interpretation explaining it would enforce Title IX’s prohibition on discrimination on the basis of sex to include: (1) discrimination based on sexual orientation; and (2) discrimination based on gender identity. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program or activity offered by a recipient of federal financial assistance.

The Office for Civil Rights further reported that LGBTQ+ students often face additional challenges in schools, including disproportionately experiencing persistent bullying, harassment and victimization. One survey found that 78 percent of transgender and nonbinary youth reported their mental health was “poor” either most of the time or always during COVID-19, compared with 61 percent of cisgender youth.

In response to the child’s wish to use the girls’ restroom, the Oak Hill School District followed the law and allowed the child to do so, which prompted members of the community to speak out. Several of those individuals stated during the Nov. 17 meeting that their children, namely girls, felt uncomfortable and unsafe sharing the restroom with a biological male, despite the fact that two single-occupancy restrooms – one on the high school side and the other on the middle school side – that had previously been designated for staff, have been converted for use by all students who desire the privacy. Superintendent Dr. Marci Shepard also explained that restrooms in the schools were being supervised by staff.

This, however, seems to not be enough judging by the comments made during the meeting, as many say they feel that the comfort of one child is being considered over the comfort of many children.

The first member of the public to speak during the meeting was retired Rev. Stan Howard. He stated that it was his understanding that the Board and district officials “have tried to do everything to satisfy this family,” adding that today’s world is ever-changing and is ripe with confusion on a range of topics, including gender, religion and racism. Rev. Howard described himself as someone who “lives by science and facts.”

“As a man in my position, serving as a pastor for many years, I live Biblically,” he said. “Because that’s how I’m going to be judged when I stand before my Lord and Savior. This may be what people say or what the State of Ohio says, but it’s not what the Word of God says.”

Overall, Rev. Howard suggested the addition of transgender restrooms in the schools as a way of solving the problem. The larger problem, though, is the need for young people and their parents to seek psychological help in dealing with such issues, he says, as “those who choose that lifestyle are 30 to 40 percent more likely to become a drug abuser, to have suicidal thoughts or to commit suicide.”

“There’s only two genders, male and female,” Rev. Howard said. “If you’re having trouble with that, just go get tested and your DNA will tell you what you are.”

Next, a fellow man of the cloth, Rev. Randy Hughes, took the floor. Acknowledging the fact that transgender individuals have rights and that laws are in place to protect those rights, Rev. Hughes asked what is being done to “protect these young ladies who should have that same protection and right to privacy.”

That sentiment proved to be common amongst the night’s speakers, including Christina Mercer, who said she feels as though her daughter’s rights are being infringed upon.

“Schools have the duty to protect the health, safety and privacy of all students,” she said. “The mental health of my child is a concern. She doesn’t want to return to school; she wants to be homeschooled. This situation makes my little girl and other girls scared for their safety. If this was the result of body dysmorphia or a related condition, it would be more understandable. But one particular child has decided to act out and make a Broadway production with his gestures and using the bathroom.”

Mercer added that “this male child wanting attention is causing harm to our girls.”

Kim Johnson, whose daughter is a senior at Oak Hill High School, became emotional when she stated that school years are “supposed to be the best days of these kids’ lives.” She explained that her daughter is only at school for four hours out of the day, and that she told her that “she can hold it that long,” meaning she is able to just not use the school’s restrooms at all.

Johnson asked, “Why should she feel like she has to hold it that long? What about the kids who are here for longer than four hours who don’t feel they can hold it that long?”

Jessica Lewis stated this bathroom situation could result in other issues, such as a girl student sharing the restroom with a transgender student making accusations of inappropriate touching, and vice versa. She added that she does not consider transgender individuals to be “bad people.”

“Everyone should feel comfortable, not just one kid,” Lewis said. “If my kids are feeling uncomfortable, I’m feeling uncomfortable.”

Michael Wolford, a Wellston resident whose children attend Oak Hill schools through open enrollment, began by expressing his appreciation for the Oak Hill Board and administration.

“I have the confidence that they have my kids’ safety at heart,” he said. “I have trust in each and every one of them.”

Next, Wolford noted the rules in place pertaining to transgender student-athletes, which disallow a transgender boy playing on a girls’ sports team, for example.

“In no way do I feel like our restroom situation should be less important than the sports situation,” he said.

Wolford also noted that the child in question likely feels “a lot of pressure,” and probably feels uncomfortable in both the boys’ and girls’ restroom. He suggested not “coming at the children” in a harsh manner and for the district to “be fair to all.”

After all the speakers had finished, Dr. Shepard broached the subject, first expressing her gratitude and pride in having such an engaged community.

“We are all on the same page with wanting every student to feel safe at school,” she said. “We want every student to be comfortable at school – no exceptions. As far as bathrooms go, the law is the law. We don’t get to choose that. Whether we agree or disagree, we can’t change the law.”

Dr. Shepard continued, stating that she and other district officials, knowing that certain things are beyond their control, have been examining the things they can control.

“We cannot require a student to use a particular bathroom,” she explained. “What we can do is say, ‘this bathroom is available for students’ – any student who wants that privacy.” Dr. Shepard was referring to the single-occupancy restrooms recently made available to all students at the middle/high school.

As previously mentioned, she also explained that the schools’ restrooms were being supervised by staff members, adding that she had recently seen a staff member standing inside the girls’ restroom at the middle school while she was walking through the halls.

“If something happens in a restroom or anywhere in our schools, if there’s a misbehavior, please let building principals know so we can address this as it’s happening,” Dr. Shepard said.

Board member Paula Stewart noted she had recently learned from discussions with Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost and Congressman Bill Johnson, that Ohio is one of 20 states that have filed suit against the Title IX law. Board President Aaron Michael encouraged anyone from the public with questions about that law, to reach out to Board and/or administration members, adding that he was not fully aware of its extent either until this situation arose.

“These decisions have been made for us by a much higher authority,” Michael said. “It’s not an excuse, it’s just the reality. This is the new reality unless something changes. We’ll continue to monitor the situation and do all we can, legally, to make as many people happy as we can.”

As this topic directly involves a young child who may feel attacked, isolated, depressed, scared or all the above, The Telegram would like to note that the first transgender suicide hotline – Trans Lifeline – is up and running, and can be reached at 877-565-8860.

Transgender people are those who know themselves to be one gender, but who were labeled a different gender at birth. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost two percent of high school students identify as transgender. Applied to all youth, this means there are at least 1.3 million-plus trans youth (ages 0 to 17).