Waukesha schools' gender guidelines decision sparks larger debate

The School District of Waukesha now has new guidelines for parental rights, stating any student questions about gender identity and sexuality are personal, private – and shouldn't be addressed by staff.

In a unanimous vote Wednesday night, the board of education enacted new guidelines for issues like gender identity, pronoun use and transgender bathrooms. That issued has sparked a larger debate.

"We wanted to be in control. We wanted to have our rights restored where we made the choice for our children," one parent said during Wednesday's debate.

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The decision means district staff needs written parental permission to call students by pronouns opposite of their biological sex.

"That gender transition is a major decision in a child’s life, and the kind of thing a parent has to be involved in," said Luke Berg, Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) deputy counsel.

Leaders with WILL are suing Madison, Kettle Moraine and Eau Claire schools where they say teachers were hiding gender information from parents.

"Parents know and love their children better than anybody else. They are going to care far more deeply than teachers," said Berg.

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Other school districts have also tackled LGBT-related issues in the classroom. Last August, Kettle Moraine's school board banned pride flags – calling them "political." The same month, Wauwatosa's school board approved a new sex education curriculum, addressing gender identity as early as third grade.

"I think we have to ask ourselves, who knows ourselves best other than ourselves?" said Dr. Chad Wetterneck with Rogers Behavioral Health in Oconomowoc.

School District of Waukesha

School District of Waukesha

Wetterneck said it can often be easier for young people to talk to their teachers first. He said the message to parents should be one of acceptance.

"We have to find a way to communicate and respect each other for who they are or how they identify. Without that, you’re not going to have basis for trust of healthy relationships, and it will leave psychological scars," Wetterneck said.

The school district maintains it wants all students to feel safe at school. In a statement Thursday, a School District of Waukesha spokeswoman said the superintendent will take the guidelines approved Wednesday and "develop procedures that fully protect these rights of district parents and their children to the extent allowed by state and federal law by, effective March 1."