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Transgender policy changes highlight need for parent engagement

When Fort Worth ISD Superintendent Dr. Kent Scribner announced policy changes allowing transgender students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice, the veteran school leader probably didn’t anticipate that his decision would make national news. Or, that his name would still be in the headlines nearly two weeks later.

In the wake of at least one public call for his resignation, a heated school board meeting, and the announcement of public forums to further clarify the issue, Scribner has so far remained steadfast in his decision.

“I am proud of the guidelines that we’ve developed,” said Scribner during a raucous public meeting captured on video on the Daily Beast. “And I’m proud that we’re able to support this policy to provide our educators with a framework to make all students—whether they are transgendered or not—comfortable and confident in the learning environment.”

Scribner’s comments, which met with cheers from many in attendance, came just days after Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick issued a statement calling for the superintendent to step down in light of how the district handled the changes. Patrick said the changes present a potential security risk for students and criticized Scribner for acting too quickly and “without any discussion with parents, board members, principals, and other community leaders.”

The dust up in Fort Worth couldn’t have come at a more prescient time for the nation’s school leaders. Earlier this month, President Obama issued a directive to all public school districts, requiring them to make certain accommodations and allowances for transgender students. (Read more about that in this New York Times story.) While Obama’s decree has no legal teeth, it does introduce the possibility of future lawsuits and withholding of federal funds for districts that fail to comply, according to the Times report.

Better communication 
As school district leaders weigh the best approach to these and other policy issues in their districts, it’s safe to assume that most would prefer to keep their names out of the headlines. Every school community is different—and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to navigating politically charged, or otherwise sensitive topics in schools.

But there are a few tried-and-tested ways to mitigate confusion and the spread of misinformation in your school community. Whenever you plan to make significant policy changes, it’s critical to issue an informed, crystal-clear response, so that people know and understand how your decision stands to impact their family.

Be warned: People will disagree with you. The best—check that, the only—way to effectively prepare for that eventuality is to openly invite feedback and respond quickly by ensuring parents, students, teachers, and others that you respect their opinions and that you will review all of the information at your disposal before making a decision—one that is in the best interest of the community.

As one columnist wrote in TribTalk, a blog operated by the Texas Tribune, “Parents, not schools, are the primary decision-makers for their children; their opinion and input is absolutely invaluable…”

In the wake of criticisms about how the most recent transgender policy changes were communicated, Fort Worth leaders organized a series of community forums and listening sessions to address any confusion or misunderstanding that community members have.

Here are some other ideas to consider prior to communicating sensitive school-based policy changes with your district:

  1. Don’t let the headlines talk for you. When you don’t know what to say, sometimes the inclination is to say nothing at all. Don’t make this mistake. There are many issues that require deeper analysis. It’s smart to investigate, but not at the expense of ignoring your community. Let concerned parents and others know that you appreciate their feedback and that you’ll take every comment into consideration before making a decision. Staying in front of the issue helps you control the narrative, eradicates misinformation, and keeps the local headlines in check.
  2. Give community members multiple ways to reach you. So, you put a Contact Us button on your website? That’s a step in the right direction. But you need to do more. Some community members will actively seek you out (and you know this), but if all you do is wait for feedback, the majority of opinions will go unheard. Get a broader representation of community sentiment by actively seeking opinions through email, in the local newspaper, via surveys, on television, at special community meetings, and in other places where your community is likely to engage and respond.
  3. Make sure your decision is clear—and that you aren’t the only one who can speak to it. Once you’ve reached a decision, make sure you communicate it clearly and without ambiguity. If parents or other community members have questions, give them a platform, such as a forum or town hall meeting, to ask those questions and receive answers in public. Make sure you aren’t the only one in the district who can speak to your decision. Train administrators, teachers and others to speak on the topic too. The decision is yours to make. But the explanation should be easy and clear enough for everyone on your team who interacts with the community to give.

Are you facing a difficult or potentially controversial decision in your school or district? What steps have you taken to address community concerns or misinformation that could impact how your decision is perceived by the public?

Have you given any thought to inviting the community to weigh in before you decide? Here’s one way to start that conversation.