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A heated debate over how to address the needs of transgender and gender-nonconforming students has dragged out for months at a public charter school in St. Paul, drawing in state activists and pitting parents against one another.

The dispute began when the parents of a 5-year-old child who is gender nonconforming asked Nova Classical Academy to help ensure their student wasn't being bullied. When other parents heard that faculty members were talking with children about such bullying, the school's board got involved, and outside groups stepped in.

The Minnesota Family Council, a Minneapolis-based Christian organization, now plans to hold a community meeting Tuesday at Nova to discuss the topic.

The charter school's controversy comes as schools across the country are enacting policies intended to make transgender students feel protected and included.

Since Nova did not have a policy in place, the backlash is falling on the shoulders of one family, said Jill Gaulding, a co-founder of the nonprofit Gender Justice who is working with the family.

"I do think it's sad and unfair to that one child. But it's a wake-up call to administrators across the state," Gaulding said.

St. Paul Public Schools approved a gender inclusion policy in March, which says staff in the school district will respect students' gender identity and provide them with access to facilities that best align with that identity.

That includes bathrooms — which has some parents particularly riled up.

"Nova parents, however, are not sitting by quietly as the school puts their children at risk," a news release from the Minnesota Family Council said. "Nearly 400 parents have signed a petition opposing mixed-sex bathrooms. … Several parents have pulled their students out of Nova or off the waiting list."

Those numbers are exaggerated, said Eric Williams, executive director of the school. The list of 400 people includes many who are not parents of Nova students, he said.

The school does not share the Minnesota Family Council's position, Williams said. School officials want to ensure all students are protected but are not "hammering through" a policy, he said.

Nova is considering the St. Paul Public Schools' inclusion policy but has not yet adopted it and has not made any decisions about who can use which bathrooms, Williams said.

The focus on bathrooms is a "scare tactic," said Ali Yocom, co-chair of the support group Transforming Families. Youths who are transitioning from one gender to another are the last people who would want others to see them naked because they feel their body is incongruent with who they are, she said.

At Nova, the focus has been bullying, not bathrooms, Yocom said.

"We're focused on a 5-year-old who wears a jumper to school, who loves to sing, who's a happy kid who just wants to go to school and be safe," Yocom said. "It's so sad that there are so many adults out there that are willing to go to great lengths to make this kid's experience more difficult."

Autumn Leva, director of policy and communication for the Minnesota Family Council, said many parents were uncomfortable with faculty reading about transgender issues to their children.

"For a lot of these families these are sensitive issues," Leva said, adding that parents would like to know those discussions are taking place before they occur.

Jessie Van Berkel • 952-746-3280