A Minnesota Department of Education advisory council voted to approve a new toolkit for "Safe and Supportive Schools for Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Students" in front of a room of more than 200 opponents and advocates of LGBTQ issues Wednesday.
The motion was met with cheers from advocates for transgender students, led by OutFront Minnesota and its allies, who wore purple at the gathering at the department's offices in Roseville.
Opponents of the toolkit, led by the Minnesota Family Council, a conservative Christian coalition, wore red.
The toolkit, approved by the School Safety Technical Assistance Council, is a nonbinding guide with information about providing welcoming environments for all students and guidelines for school officials to support transgender and gender-nonconforming students.
The toolkit stems from a desire to combat bullying in schools, said state Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey.
Opponents said it goes too far.
"Concerns of gender-conforming students and parents are ignored and dismissed" by the toolkit, said John Helmberger, CEO of the Minnesota Family Council.
While the toolkit won approval, it could face legal challenges by school districts, according to the Minnesota Family Council.
Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius made it clear to the audience that the toolkit is not set in stone and that she expects edits to be made along the way.
"Sadly, this toolkit undermines my authority as a parent," said Joy Orbis, who wore red and brought her four children from the Anoka-Hennepin School District to the packed meeting. Before the meeting, Orbis and her children drew signs that included the hashtag #Stopthetoolkit.
"The toolkit encourages teachers to teach false conceptions of gender," said Barb Anderson, a longtime opponent of changes to LGBTQ policies in the Anoka-Hennepin district. Her comments on Wednesday were met with yells of "disrespect" by others in the meeting room.
Stakeholders in Anoka-Hennepin hotly debated the use of bathrooms by transgender young people earlier this year.
Dave Edwards from Transforming Families MN and parent of a transgender child, said 1,050 parents signed a petition supporting the toolkit.
Reps. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, and Abigail Whelan, R-Ramsey, spoke against the toolkit. Miller said he could confidently say that no one in his district, which includes Renville and Chippewa counties, is in favor of the toolkit.
"I do not see sensitivities to a 13-year-old Christian girl or a kindergarten boy who cannot possibly have a sexual orientation," Miller said.
Whelan compared the use of transgender pronouns to allowing someone to decide their race. "If someone says they want me to refer to them by a different race, I wouldn't do that," she said.
OutFront Minnesota supporters called the council's vote a victory for LGBTQ young people, arguing that it would save lives.
"We are really really thankful that the Minnesota Department of Education decided to pass this," said Esme Rodriguez, OutFront Minnesota school equity director.
Wording in the draft toolkit recommends that school officials ask before assuming a student's name, gender identity or pronoun and should not exclude students from activities based on how they identify.
School officials have been awaiting action from the department before moving forward with their own plans after transgender issues roiled districts across the country this year.
St. Louis Park was one district looking to the board's vote to see how to move forward with its own inclusion policy. The department's advisory council will send the revised copy of the draft to school districts.
Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association, said he wants districts to understand that the toolkit is nonbinding.
"Hopefully, this does not create more confusions for all our students," he said.
Lowell Feldhahn, a 19-year-old University of Minnesota student, said he attended the meeting to show that the board's decision would impact gender-nonconforming students like him. "We are here," he said.
Beatrice Dupuy • 612-673-1707