Lowcountry school boards face school closings and transgender debate 

Lessons Learned

click to enlarge Hundreds packed last week's meeting of the Berkeley County School Board to discuss the district's treatment of transgender students

Dustin Waters

Hundreds packed last week's meeting of the Berkeley County School Board to discuss the district's treatment of transgender students

As of late, the biggest issues facing the Lowcountry haven't been decided by state legislators or council officials. Instead the area's most heated debates have unfolded in front of local school boards tasked with figuring out what's best for students, while appeasing parents and managing the business side of education. But last week's high-profile board meetings in Charleston and Berkeley counties were about more than just the ins and outs of reading, writing, and arithmetic.

These meetings found community members raising serious concerns over the social ramifications of the actions taken by board members. And as this school year comes to a close, the ramifications of their decisions are sure to be felt all summer long.

As members of the Charleston County School Board moved to close Lincoln Middle-High School last Monday, supporters for the school stood and gave one final singing of their alma mater as they slowly left the room. With almost 300 in attendance to see the decision handed down, the crowd dwarfed the total student body at the McClellanville school, which numbered around 167 last year. The final vote to shut down the historically African-American school passed 6-3 with board members Dr. Eric Mack, Michael Miller, and Rev. Chris Collins opposing the final decision to shutter what had become one of the most expensive schools in the district in terms of money spent per student.

Following the end of this school year, Lincoln students in grades 9-12 will be zoned for Wando High School in Mt. Pleasant, which sits approximately 25 miles away from Lincoln. In addition to outlining a transition strategy that includes academic support services, two additional air conditioned buses will be provided to transport students. Several of those who addressed the school board during last week's meeting made their concerns clear regarding the lengthy bus rides that Lincoln's former students would face once attending Wando.

"You want these kids to get on the bus for an hour. Two hours is what you are talking about to transport these kids back and forth," said Dot Scott, president of the Charleston branch of the NAACP, who was among 57 speakers during the meeting. "You've sabotaged the constituent school district in terms of listening to them. No, instead of putting those kids in a school where they're zoned, you move them somewhere else."

Early start times and long commutes have been shown to reduce academic performance and student participation. A 2007 study by the Rural School and Community Trust surveyed high-schoolers across four counties in West Virginia. They reported that students who face commute times of longer than one hour tend to participate in far fewer extra-curricular activities, if any, than students who live closer to school. But those in support of closing down Lincoln argued that Wando would provide much greater academic opportunities for students new to the school.

"This is a difficult decision for us. It's 500 times more difficult for the families and students that go to Lincoln or have gone to Lincoln or live in that community. I want to say, and I've said this before, I would be making this recommendation whether we had the budget challenge that we have now or not because I want to do what is best and the school board wants to do what's best for student achievement," said board member Kate Darby. "I feel strongly that there are so many increased opportunities for students at Wando. I want to commit that the board, the staff, whatever happens on this motion, we want to work with whatever transition there is. We know it's hard, but if we really focus on what is better for the students, I think we'll see that the opportunities that they'll have at Wando are going to be more than they would ever be able to have at Lincoln right now."

Lincoln was one of two schools on the chopping block last week, but Jane Edwards Elementary gained a last minute reprieve with the board voting unanimously to keep the Edisto Island school open over the next year as staff works to develop a long-term strategy for its preservation.

A motion was also passed to increase the tax rate on commercial properties to restore a portion of cuts to literacy programs and positions for assistant principals and student counselors. The final vote passed 6-3 with board members Collins, Tripp Wiles, and Todd Garrett opposing the increase. The increase raises taxes by $288 on a commercial property valued around $500,000 and $576 for those priced at $1 million and will sunset at the end of three years.

click to enlarge DUSTIN WATERS
  • Dustin Waters

The meeting of the Charleston County School Board was followed the next evening by a heated debate in Berkeley County to discuss the district's bathroom policies as they relate to transgender students.

Berkeley County schools recently began allowing transgender students to use bathrooms and participate in activities related to the gender with which they identify following a Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that such activities are protected under Title IX, a federal law which prohibits gender discrimination in schools receiving funding from the government. But the ruling goes beyond just bathrooms for students like Sera Guerry.

"The Fourth Circuit ruling has really changed my life, my academic life at least, so I can really fit in with all my peers. Arguing against its implementation in schools by saying that it's going to harm other students is just kind of ridiculous and completely illogical," said Guerry, a sophomore at Berkeley High who remembers speaking with administrators following the court's decision. "They called me and told me, 'You're going to be able to use the female restroom now. We're going to take the initiative to sit down and let you know what all that means.' I can use the female restroom. I can also go on trips and act as a female with my peers."

Last week's school board meeting in Moncks Corner drew hundreds of parents, students, and advocates on both sides of the issue. Steve Fowler-Vaughn, a pastor and parent of three, was in attendance to oppose the district's decision.

"I don't want my girls to go to school and have to worry whether or not there's a boy wanting to be in the girls' restroom. I think it gives room for boys who are very sexually promiscuous to get an opportunity to take a look or catch a feel, so to speak, while they are in the bathroom," he said.

Following a lengthy executive session, Chairman Jim Hayes read a statement from the board, saying that school administrators will continue to manage requests made by transgender students in reference to the use of restroom facilities in hopes of receiving a clearly defined direction from the courts prior to the start of the upcoming school year. Later asked for clarification on the district's decision, Hayes stated, "Each situation will be handled individually. Therefore there could be students in a school who use a private restroom and students in a school who use the restroom for the gender with which they identify."

Later in the week, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education released a joint statement, saying that administrators should treat students consistent with their gender identity and allow students to participate in "sex-segregated activities and access sex-segregated facilities consistent with their gender identity." Guidance provided by the departments also states that schools can provide additional privacy options to students for any reason, adding that it does not require any student to use shared bathrooms or changing spaces, when there are other appropriate options available.

Having spoken before the Berkeley County School Board, Melissa Moore, executive director of LGBTQ nonprofit We Are Family, applauded the Department of Education's announcement and encouraged local and state educators to comply with these guidelines.

"Finally, the struggles faced by transgender and gender non-conforming youth are getting the attention that they deserve. It is transgender people who are more often the targets of harassment and sexual assault, not the other way around," she said. "Most people take for granted very basic things like going to the bathroom. It is difficult for transgender students to learn if they do not have access to facilities that match their gender identities."

Moore added, "We cannot expect kids to be successful, well-rounded students if they cannot fully participate in campus life. We are doing a great disservice to transgender students and to our entire education system when we do not live up to values of fairness and equal opportunity."

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