Columbia schools mull impact of adding gender identity protection

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COLUMBIA - A wording change in the Columbia Public Schools' nondiscrimination policy could lead to district-wide changes.

The Columbia Board of Education's Policy Committee unanimously approved a wording change to include "gender identity" and "gender expression" the school district's nondiscrimination policy. This change began at the committee's April meeting when community members raised concerns regarding protection of transgender students and staff as well as those who do not conform to traditional gender identities. 

The policy already protects sexual orientation and genetic information from discrimination and harassment; however, Kyle Piccola of PROMO said this leaves out a demographic of the LGBTQ community.

Piccola is a senior field organizer for PROMO, Missouri's statewide lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual advocacy organization.

"The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, commonly referred to LGBT, faces certain barriers when it comes to living in the state of Missouri," Piccola said. 

At the top of the list is discrimination. Piccola said there is little legal protection for transgender men and women in the state of Missouri. 

Jan Mees is on the board of education and also serves on the policy committee. She said this change could have a large impact on the school district and must be thought out carefully.

"If you're putting something in policy, you have to expect that all the practitioners who will be dealing with that policy in their buildings, they need to have guidance also," Mees said. "Just because the school board says, 'Here, do it,' how is the best way to do it, whatever the policy is."

Mees along with the rest of the policy committee had positive things to say regarding the change. The committee unanimously voted to make the change and send it to the school board for approval. 

"The board will look at the policy with the changes made," Mees said. "If they're comfortable with accepting that as a first read in June, then come September, we would vote on it as a formal change to the policy."

"If a current staff member of CPS would like to transition, they currently aren't specifically protected," Piccola said. "This change would ensure that a staff member wanted to transition, they know they can't be fired for that."

Piccola also mentioned the University of Missouri as well as the city of Columbia both recently added gender identity, expression, and sexual orientation protection to their respective nondiscrimination policies. In the state of Missouri, Columbia is one of only sixteen municipalities with this specific protection. 

"Ninety-five percent of Fortune 500 companies already have these policies in place, so they already look at this as a good business policy," Piccola said. 

"As a governing body, the school board has to make the best decisions in the best interest of all students," Mees said. "What we're trying to do is what we feel is in the best interest of our students who might be undergoing this process of gender identity, and we have to make an accommodation for that."