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School board to discuss transgender issues in Florence

By Scott Harrison
Published On: Nov 01 2013 08:31:03 PM CDT

School board to discuss whether a high school student should use a female bathroom despite being born a male.

FLORENCE, Colo. -

The question of whether a Florence High School student should use a female bathroom despite being born a male will be the subject of a special school board meeting this month.

Rhonda Vendetti, superintendent of the Fremont RE-2 school district, said the board likely will hear from the Pacific Justice Institute, a civil liberties organization seeking to resolve transgender issues involving a 16-year-old student.

Vendetti confirmed that the district conducted an investigation into alleged harassment by or against the student last month.  Results haven't been made public but were shared with members of the institute, who then requested an appeal to the board.

Photos of the student were released for the first time by Cristan Williams, a transgender adult female from Texas who is editor of "The Transadvocate," a website that covers transgender issues.  Williams has had exclusive contact with the student's family and allowed KRDO NewsChannel 13 to show the photos with the family's permission.

"A photo gets across that this is a real human being, that this is a girl you're talking about," said Williams.  "And she has changed her look since the photos were taken.  A photo is safer than releasing her name that someone could use to track her down and cause her harm."

The student nearly committed suicide, said Williams, after being harassed and threatened by adults on news online comment sections.

"The school and the students did nothing wrong," said Williams.  "The problem is those adults who don't understand."

Williams blames the controversy on the institute, accusing it of lying, fueling tensions and pushing an agenda to segregate transgenders.

"No one had a problem (with the student) until a parent showed up at school with the media and complained about the situation," she said.  "Everything was blown completely out of proportion, and the institute described events that didn't happen or weren't true."

In an Oct. 10 letter to school principal Brian Schipper, institute attorney Matthew McReynolds said "Freshman girls encountered a biological male student in the female restroom.  This student does not consistently identify with either gender and has allegedly made sexually harassing comments toward the girls with whom he seeks to share a restroom."

Williams said no one has supported that claim, and even police saw no grounds for a criminal investigation.

"The student transitioned to female two years ago," she said.  "So she's been consistent.  The only comment she made in the restroom was something most high school girls would say to another -- such as 'You look nice today' or 'I like your hair that way.'"

The letter also described the school's alleged suggestion of having non-transgenders use alternate and more inconvenient restrooms as "woefully inadequate and legally risky."

The institute did not respond to an interview request from KRDO NewsChannel 13.

Williams said she understands that people of one sex would be uncomfortable about sharing a restroom with someone of the opposite sex, but that sentiment generally comes from preconceptions and misunderstandings about transgenders.

"The fact is that a transgender kid goes to the bathroom for the same reason that everyone else does.  They go and take care of their business and they leave.  Then they go back to school."

Williams, who transitioned to female in her 20s, said treatment of transgenders has improved but the Florence situation shows that room for improvement remains.

Ethan Miller, a senior at the school, said he knew the student before he transitioned to female.

"Before he -- she -- turned into a woman, he was a man and he was pretty darn cool," said Miller.  (She) still is, to this day on, and people shouldn't be judgmental about it.  There's nothing wrong with it."

School cafeteria employee Joyce Peterson said she remains concerned about the bathroom issue but hopes the school district will do a better job of informing the community about sensitive issues.

"She's been very nice, very polite, very thoughtful," Peterson said of the student.  "I'm sure it's a lot for her family to deal with.  But you have to deal with it.  You can't ignore it."

Vendetti said the special school board meeting likely will be held before the regularly scheduled meeting on Nov. 12.

"We just hope all students feel they're being treated fairly at our high school," she said.

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