A Letter to La Center School Board

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A Letter to La Center School Board

Categories: feature, News

Dear La Center School Board Members,

Please find this letter of concern from the Southwest Washington Equity Coalition and several of our member organizations. We appreciate your time and consideration of our letter; though the agencies themselves may not be located in La Center, many of the employees, clients and customers of these agencies do live in La Center, and the impacts of your role as school board members are rippling across our community.

Like many others from whom you’ve been hearing lately, we are writing with concern regarding your inclusive schools policy. Firstly, we would like to thank you for recognizing the importance of creating inclusive, diverse learning environments for our children. The foundation of a strong education is exposure to diverse thinking – as our communities across Clark County continue to grow and diversify, it is imperative that our school policies and curricula remain adaptable and malleable.

Unfortunately, it seems that your gender inclusive schools policy (3211P) has missed the mark.

We agree with and appreciate much about the acknowledgements preluding the policy: we do feel that families are vital in supporting educating and caring for their children, and we sincerely value the role of public schools in serving as a safe haven for all children, regardless of their family background. We also understand the role of the public schools to protect children when parents and families may pose a substantial threat to a child’s safety. Ultimately, a school’s duties are both to educate and protect our community’s youth.

This policy, both in word and in practice, is not only dangerous, but is also actively harmful for all students, especially those who are transgender or non-binary, and thus negates your own pledge to provide safe and inclusive spaces.

While the discussion of gender identity itself is not inherently problematic or dangerous in a family setting, the fact remains that youth who identify as members of the LGBTQ+ communities (to include youth who are transgender or nonbinary) are:

  • more likely to experience abuse at home,
  • more likely to experience homelessness as a result of needing to leave their home (due to either abuse or being kicked out by their parents), and
  • more likely to experience self-harming behaviors (sometimes leading to attempting and completing suicide).

Additionally, youth who found their schools to be supportive environments reported lower rates of attempting suicide than those who reported hostile environments at their schools (The Trevor Project National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health 2020).

As a coalition whose membership includes many who identify as members of the LGBTQ+ communities, we can assure you that open discussion and acceptance of pronouns doesn’t lead people to change their gender or sexuality. Pronouns merely reflect one’s identity. The logic that asking students for their pronouns will necessarily cause ‘gender confusion’ is both flawed and problematic. Everyone has a gender identity, and not recognizing or verbalizing this doesn’t make it disappear. Even students who are firmly aware of their cis-gendered identity have pronouns and pronoun preferences.

Superintendent Rosenkranz shared that, “if [students] have different pronouns and want them used in class they can tell you” in a statement for teachers sent on November 10th, 2022. This sentiment is dangerous for many reasons. Firstly, the use of the word “different” leads to an immediate othering of students, and an assumption that all people use either she/her or he/him pronouns that are most closely linked to their outward gender expression. Students who do not fit the “traditional” mold of appearances are immediately “othered” and made to feel less than or, in Superintendent Rosenkranz’ words, “different.” This also creates a dangerous responsibility for students to share their pronouns if “different” from what’s assumed, which means, (1) they will likely be misgendered and will share their pronouns as a corrective measure, and (2) this creates a harmful environment for everyone.

Pronouns being a big topic of debate within schools can make trans and nonbinary students feel unsafe or unwelcome within their schools because their identity is being called into question. An environment that questions the importance and validity of pronouns can make the act of sharing one’s pronouns of their own volition an act of bravery and potentially fear. Knowing someone’s pronouns and purposely using other pronouns is a blatant act of discrimination and should be treated as such.

It cannot be stressed enough that pronouns affect everyone, not just trans, nonbinary, and LGBTQ+ people. Everybody deserves to have their pronouns respected. For example, should Superintendent Rosenkranz be repeatedly referred to with either “she” or “they” pronouns, it seems safe to assume he would consider that blatant disrespect, even, potentially, harassment.

Again, all pronouns are valid and should be respected.

While telling a parent or family of a child’s request for pronoun recognition doesn’t necessarily jeopardize that youth’s safety, it also isn’t automatically the school’s role to inform parents. Schools need to understand the potential risk students may face at home, respect all students’ identities, and create inclusive, supportive communities that center the needs of students most at risk of harm.

Below this letter, you will find a clear guideline and tipsheet for using pronouns in schools.

This document was created by our friends at YWCA Clark County’s Prevention team. The Prevention team is composed of subject matter experts in the realm of preventing violence in schools, families, and communities. We strongly urge you to read this document and to change policy 3211P, most pressingly the guidance prohibiting the asking of pronouns and the requirement to inform parents of a youth’s stated gender identity.

Siobhana R. McEwen, Chair
The Southwest Washington Equity Coalition

With Support from the Following Organizations:
YWCA Clark County
Washington Low Income Housing Alliance
NAACP Vancouver, Branch 1139-B2
BTC Partners
Kameroff Consulting
Council for the Homeless
Clark County Volunteer Lawyers

The Importance of Pronouns in Schools

Pronouns have become a topic of debate in all of the United States, for reasons that are rooted in homophobia and transphobia. Rejecting pronouns is an indirect rejection of trans, non-binary, and gender nonconforming people’s existence and humanity. Centering pronouns as the root of the problem masks the root of folks’ anger – discrimination towards those who are not identifying with the sex they were assigned at birth.

Discussions of pronouns are prevalent across Clark County, and all schools are engaging in these discussions and continue their learning in order to create safe spaces for all students. The purpose of this guide is to explain how and why pronouns are used as well as why they’re important – particularly in schools.

What are pronouns?

We recognize asking for and sharing pronouns may be a new concept for some people. If pronouns aren’t discussed in your community, family, home environment, etc. they can seem like an overwhelming topic. In reality, pronouns are used every day by everyone.

Here’s an example that conceptualizes this topic: Imagine someone is talking about a person named Jane who uses she/her pronouns and is a cisgender woman — cisgender refers to a person whose gender identity aligns with the sex assigned to them at birth. This means when someone is talking about Jane, they might say something like “She believes asking pronouns is important.”

If this example didn’t use pronouns someone might instead say “Jane believes asking for pronouns is important.” This example shows how frequently pronouns are used in daily conversations.

If someone doesn’t know another person’s pronouns they can use gender neutral pronouns such as they/them to not make assumptions regarding someone's identity. If someone asked “Where did Jane go?” someone who doesn’t know Jane’s pronouns could respond, “They went to the school board meeting”. This is language that is used regularly and we may not think about it until intentional conversations about the usage of pronouns are brought up.

Someone can look like a stereotypical woman (wear a dress, have long hair, wear makeup, etc.) and still not be a woman. They may not identify as a man or woman and instead might identify as non-binary. This means they might prefer to use they/them pronouns or she/they pronouns.

The way someone might ‘look’ has nothing to do with their gender identity. Outward appearance is not inherently linked to gender identity and everyone deserves the autonomy to identify however they’d like. Thus, making assumptions based on one’s outward appearance can cause harm.

Respecting Pronouns Respects People

Even though Jane, in our example, is cisgender, she still shares her pronouns whenever she introduces herself as it creates an environment that normalizes sharing pronouns and rejects making assumptions based on someone’s appearance. According to the Trevor Project, “the best way to confirm a person’s pronouns is by asking or by introducing yourself with your pronouns, to give the person an opportunity to share theirs… Affirming gender in school and workplace settings can begin by having a practice of sharing pronouns for everyone and setting the expectation that all individuals will have their pronouns respected by others.”

The Trevor Project’s National Survey on Mental Health in 2020 states, “Transgender and nonbinary youth who report having their pronouns respected by all or most of the people in their lives attempted suicide at half the rate of those who did not have their pronouns respected.”

Respecting people’s pronouns, and affirming their identity, is crucial to creating a safe environment for people. Not acknowledging queer and trans youth and their identities doesn’t make their identities change, it just causes harm. Not talking about pronouns is the erasure of trans and non-binary people’s identities. Respecting pronouns, however, is beneficial to youth’s mental health and the Trevor Projects 2020 survey showed that, “Affirming LGBTQ youth’s gender by using pronouns that align with their gender identity has been shown to improve mental health outcomes.”

Pronouns being a big topic of debate within schools can make trans and nonbinary students not feel safe or welcome within their schools because their identity is being called into question. An environment that questions the importance and validity of pronouns can make the act of even sharing one’s pronouns at their volition an act of bravery and possibly also fear.

Who is impacted?

It is crucial to note that pronouns affect everyone, not just trans, nonbinary, and LGBTQ+ people. Everyone deserves to have their pronouns respected. However, only binary pronouns such as she/her and he/him are thought to be ‘normal’. This further creates a flawed understanding of pronouns by deeming some normal and others different, which perpetuates harm and otherizes entire communities. All pronouns are valid and should be respected.

Open discussion and acceptance of pronouns doesn’t lead people to change their gender or sexuality, pronouns merely reflect one’s identity. The questioning and navigating of one’s gender identity and/or sexual orientation is also a normal process. Sexuality and gender identity and expression are oftentimes fluid and exist on a spectrum. Giving youth the space, time, and support in navigating and exploring their gender identity is crucial to helping them feel validated and supported, which is directly connected to social-emotional learning.

If a parent doesn’t want their child to question their gender or sexuality then this parent is causing harm and potentially not allowing their child to be who they want to be. Not making room for gender questioning doesn’t promote the safety and wellbeing of students, but instead, reinforces systems of oppression and harm. Is this the messaging we want to send to students?

That they shouldn’t question their gender? And if they are, that school isn’t a safe space to do this? The solution to this problem, instead of not allowing teachers to ask their students for pronouns, is educating people on why pronouns are important, not harmful.

A Message to Schools

As people who work for the school district, it is your responsibility to not only keep youth within the district safe but to also help them feel supported so they can engage in school as best as possible.

The assumption that it is more inclusive to not ask students what pronouns they use is misinformed. Youth know what they need to do in order to feel safe, such as not using the pronouns they identify with in certain spaces. You are not outing youth simply by creating a space where asking for pronouns is common practice. By creating a norm around asking for pronouns, you will help queer and questioning youth feel more comfortable and valid in their identities. In addition, we are helping straight and cisgender youth learn ways to support their queer and trans classmates.

If students don’t feel safe at home with their gender identity, that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t feel safe at school. This increases the importance of school being a safe environment.