NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– A New Hanover County Board of Education subcommittee plans to re-review a policy that would allow middle school students to play on the sports teams consistent with their gender identity.
The extracurricular activities and student organizations policy, No. 3620, is scheduled to go up for a vote of approval at the school board’s June meeting. Before then, board member Pete Wildeboer is asking for further examination of the newly proposed language.
At the school board’s meeting Tuesday night, Wildeboer voiced concern about the rule regarding sports and gender identity applying differently to middle schools than high schools. As drafted, the revised policy would add a line clarifying that middle schoolers may participate on the sports team that matches their gender identity. However, to participate in high school interscholastic athletics, students must seek permission outside of New Hanover County Schools.
The North Carolina High School Athletic Association requires an extensive process for a student to join a team inconsistent with their birth sex. To make such a determination, the student must submit a gender identity request form. That request is then reviewed by the Gender Identity Committee, which includes a licensed mental health professional and a physician, among others, who have expertise in gender identity.
New Hanover County Schools Title IX Director Jarelle Lewis explained adopting a similar process at the middle school level is “cumbersome.”
“You kind of do have to prove that you actually do identify with the gender that you’re claiming,” Lewis said. “For middle school, I definitely think the process would be easier as a simplified process.”
Lewis said the school district would need to clarify to middle school students that, if they want to continue playing sports in high school, they would need to seek permission from the state association.
“Participating in middle school doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you would participate in high school, but I do think it could be a positive,” Lewis said. “Once they get to the high school level, and they are submitting the request of North Carolina High School Athletic Association, they would have had teammates, coaches that could attest to their gender identity once it’s being reviewed by the committee.”
Board member Hugh McManus questioned if a coach would face legal repercussions if a student did not make the team they tried out for that is different from the sex listed on their birth certificate. He asked that those questions be addressed in the policy.
“If I say no, could I be sued? Could the district be sued? If I take the child and the child does not play as much? I’ve dealt with this all my life,” said McManus, a former principal for middle and high schools.
In the past, Lewis dealt with a complaint from a person who claimed they did not receive a fair tryout for the football team because of their gender. He said in a case such as that one, he investigates the climate to determine whether the student was discriminated against.
Overall, the Title IX director favored adding the language to the school system’s policy. He said it would give the community an answer to questions they’re asking.
“I think the students do deserve an answer as well so they can understand what they are able to do,” Lewis said.
He noted the proposed language is in line with changes at the federal level.
On March 8, President Joe Biden signed an executive order “guaranteeing an educational environment free of discrimination on the basis of sex, including sexual orientation or gender identity.”
“That’s why I believe it was best to have the line inserted for middle school students, instead of being silent,” Lewis said.
The conversation around transgender athletes’ rights is also happening at the state level. The N.C. General Assembly is reviewing a controversial bill that would bar transgender students from playing on girl sports teams. However, the “Save Women’s Sports Act” is not expected to pass. The News & Observer reported Tuesday the bill has yet to advance in the legislature since it was introduced, signaling scarce support.
“I trust my coaches, and I trust these students,” said board member Nelson Beaulieu, who serves as chair of the policy committee. “I don’t see this as being problematic. I think students are going to play based on what they feel is appropriate.”
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