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In Dripping Springs, Parents Weigh In on Bathroom Debate

Walnut Springs Elementary School's decision to allow a transgender student, born a boy, to use girls' bathrooms sparked contentious debate during a Monday night meeting of the Dripping Springs School Board.

The Dripping Springs Independent School District Board held a public hearing regarding the policy allowing for a transgender third-grade student at Walnut Springs Elementary to use the girls' bathroom in accordance with her gender identity on Monday, September 26, 2016.

DRIPPING SPRINGS — Walnut Springs Elementary School's decision to allow a transgender student, born a boy, to use girls' bathrooms sparked contentious debate during a Monday night meeting of the Dripping Springs School Board.

While the issue was not on the board's meeting agenda, groups of parents used the meeting's public comment period to either support or condemn the school's decision. The school board changed its schedule to hear comments ahead of the original agenda as a result of a high turnout. 

"There was no notification from the principal, and that is a big issue when talking about the safety and security of our students," Eric Phillips, a parent of two girls attending Walnut Springs Elementary, told the board. "You hear about the discomforts of transgender students. But what about the girls being exposed? Once you allow someone to say, 'I should go into another bathroom,' everyone will be able to go into that bathroom." 

The transgender student has attended Walnut Elementary since kindergarten, said Andy Hutton, a parent of a child at the school and friend of the student's family. While she was transitioning, she was allowed to use the faculty restroom, Hutton said, but this year she requested to use the girls' bathrooms in the school's facility and was granted permission by the principal. 

Texas Values, a faith-based nonprofit that has opposed accommodations for transgender students across the state, organized a protest against the decision for Monday night's board meeting. Hutton said that after learning about Texas Values' plans, he created a Facebook group to organize support for the student.

Hundreds of people attended the meeting, and the room was at capacity, with more spectators at the hallway having to stand up. Speakers from both sides received cheers after their testimony, and the board had to remind the audience several times to hold their applause. 

Grant Tate, who has an 8-year-old attending Walnut Springs Elementary, said his child does not care about who goes in or out of the bathroom.

"Our kid doesn't care. He wants his friends to feel comfortable and safe," Tate said. "The fear comes from the adults. Our kids aren't scared — adults are scared. We shouldn't fear someone because she or he is different. We need to celebrate them. We should support them."

Danielle Rodriguez, a nine-year-old fourth-grader at Walnut Springs, told the audience the issue was overblown.

"I think it's important to realize students don't care to spend time at bathrooms at school. There are other places we'd rather be. Being in the bathroom is not a big part of my school day," Rodriguez said. "I trust teachers will look out for what is best for the students."

But opponents of the decision said they should have been notified by the school before any changes were made and criticized the school for jeopardizing their children's safety. 

Blake Stotler, a parent of two girls at Walnut Springs Elementary, said his kids now suffer anxiety after learning about the change. 

"This district has violated our trust for a lack of transparency," Stotler said. "An accommodation that was given directly affects my daughters, and we were not informed. This affects the emotional, physical and mental well-being of my daughters, with unsupervised bathrooms that have children of opposite sex."

Mike Phillips, a parent of a high school girl, feared that the decision at Walnut Springs Elementary will extend to the district's middle and high schools. 

"There might be a boy looking under the stalls," Phillips said. "We don't know that it will happen, but there is no guarantee."

The discussion is the latest in Texas regarding transgender students and bathrooms. In August, a federal judge in Fort Worth blocked guidelines from the Obama administration that call for districts to allow students to use the bathrooms that align with their gender identity. Texas is also leading a lawsuit against the federal government over regulations that prohibit health care providers from limiting coverage to transgender patients, including health services regarding gender transition. 

At an interview before Monday night's meeting, Dripping Springs ISD Superintendent Bruce Gearing said the district's code of conduct operates under a nondiscrimination policy. 

"The policy says that we shall not discriminate against any child for any reason stated in the policy" Gearing said. "I feel confident we are making the best decisions in the best interest of individual children in individual circumstances. We accommodate students on a daily basis for lots of different issues."

The school's code of conduct states that gender harassment includes "harassment based on a student’s gender, expression by the student of stereotypical characteristics associated with the student’s gender, or the student’s failure to conform to stereotypical behavior related to gender."

"As long as we are following anti-discriminatory policies, we will follow our path and make sure we're providing that opportunity for education to all our students," Carrie Kroll, president of the school board, said before the meeting. "Our goal is to have a respectful conversation and ensure everyone feels their views have been heard."

State Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, whose district covers Dripping Springs, weighed in on the issue in a statement late Monday.

"Public school bathrooms and locker rooms should be safe spaces — not social experiments that leave children vulnerable without privacy or dignity," the statement read. "I encourage Dripping Springs ISD to support bathroom and locker room policies that reflect common sense, take every student's safety into account, and give full consideration to the concerns of parents in the most transparent manner possible.

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