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Students, community members advocate for New Albany schools to drop pronoun policy

LGBTQ flags
Alberto Pezzali
LGBTQ flags

A policy implemented at the beginning of the school year by the New Albany school board requiring parental permission before students can use their preferred name and pronoun continues drawing outrage from students, LGBTQ allies and parents who spoke at the school board’s meeting Monday.

Since the policy was implemented, members of the public have called on the school board to rescind or revise it. The board has not done that, and rejected requests at a meeting last month to allow the formation of an advisory committee to advise the board. Speakers reiterated their requests on Monday.

Board members Phil Derrow and Paul Naumoff said last month that they feel an advisory committee wouldn’t help settle the issue.

After about 45 minutes of pleas from students, parents and others with connections to the school, the board moved on to discuss other items, without directly addressing the comments. They transitioned to a discussion about campus inclusivity and belonging.

Speaker Nicholas Alspach said kids need school to be a safe place where they can get comfortable with their gender identity before telling their parents. “The only way a student is going to feel comfortable telling their parents about their identity is if they feel confident in their identity, and the only way to feel confident in their identity is to experiment with it,” he said.

Alspach said it is common for LGBTQ kids to experiment with different names and pronouns to figure out what feels right. “Experimenting students get comfortable with authority figures being aware of their new names and pronouns by testing it with teachers. First, teachers are less intimidating than parents. Once a student tests the waters with authority knowing their new name and pronouns, they might feel safe enough to come out to their parents,” he said.

He also pushed back at the idea that differing names and pronouns could be confusing in the classroom. “Names and pronouns are just as easy to use as nicknames and not using them is incredibly damaging to the student. So you should use them,” Alspach said.

He argues the policy is damaging to the development and autonomy of students. “In this context, informing parents about a student's usage of different pronouns before the student is ready to have that conversation is incredibly damaging to the student. Even if the parents aren't accepting, it completely removes the agency of that student to control their own life,” Alspach said.

Derrow and Naumoff told attendees at the November meeting that the policy is to keep parents informed and involved.

On Monday, speakers said that it could be endangering kids who live with guardians who don’t support their gender identity.

MJ Gravel, a mom in the school district, said gender identity isn’t a behavior or attitude that needs to be corrected, and the policy is putting trans students and teachers in a vulnerable place where it’s harder to find the support they need.

Rachel Billups, lead pastor of New Albany United Methodist Church, said kids need to be able to define who they are. “People want to belong. They want to be known. And they want to be seen. I'm asking you to reconsider and revise this policy, so that our students can belong they can be seen, they can be called by their name."

Numerous speakers warned that trans youth are at a higher risk of self-harm, and that the policy is dangerous.

WOSU reached out to Derrow via email after some speakers called for him to resign from the board after accusing him of having a bias against LGBTQ people. Derrow did not respond before publication.

Derrow said in November the policy isn’t meant to hurt trans students, but parents need to be informed when their child wants to alter their name and pronoun preferences, and give consent.

Speakers questioned why an email informing family of the change in August cited the policy was to get in line with federal law, when it doesn’t appear to.

WOSU requested the specific citation of federal law the policy is meant to satisfy in an email that was sent to Derrow and New Albany School Board President Debra Kalinosky.

Renee Fox is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News.