By Imari Scarbrough
The Bermudian Springs school board discussed policy updates during meetings on Monday and Tuesday, including the addition of a locker room and restroom policy designed to offer more privacy and accommodations.
The board held a caucus meeting on Monday evening followed by a regular meeting on Tuesday night.
Restroom, locker room policy
Policy 711 – “Use of Facilities by Students” is intended to accommodate students’ needs for privacy and for facilities that meet their needs.
For the purposes of the policy, a facility is defined as: “Any restroom, locker room, or shower located on district property that allows for an individual to be in a state of undress.”
The policy states that the schools will offer facilities for students based on their sex assigned at birth, for students according to their gender identity, and single-user rooms for students who do not want to use the other options.
Students would need to stay reasonably consistent with their gender identity, showing, “over a sustained period of time, that evidences that a student’s gender identity is sincerely held as a part of the student’s core identity,” according to the policy.
Should any individual student’s need for an accommodation change, Hotchkiss said administration would work with them on a case-by-case basis.
Hotchkiss said the policy was written by district solicitor Brooke Say following community feedback during the buildings and grounds meeting in August.
“For facilities used based on sex at birth, that indicates that in every educational building of the school district there will be a facility, a restroom, for use by only those individuals whose sex assigned at birth matches the designation that’s outside of the restroom,” Say explained. “There are requirements relative to individuals using that, and then of course there are a few little exceptions to those principles for some basic needs of the district. like custodial and maintenance issues, emergency and medical assistance, natural disasters, etc.”
Restrooms appointed for use by those with particular gender identities would also be set.
“The policy then intends the administration to designate within a school building restrooms that are able to be used by those who assert a particular gender identity,” Say said. “In many of those situations, the gender identity is going to match that individual’s biological sex. In some of those situations, the gender identity may not match their biological sex.”
Say clarified the policy is intended to alleviate community concerns, to provide accommodations for those who need them, and to ensure options and privacy are preserved.
“The purpose of the policy is kind of to thread the needle,” Say said. “Hearing the concerns that individuals had that said there might have been some discomfort about accommodating students with a particular gender identity, this provides a designated bathroom where biological sex is recognized and in that sense is protected so that only individuals with that biological sex can enter that restroom.”
Board member Matthew Nelson voiced concerns with the policy, saying families may feel “forced” to discuss matters with their children, especially elementary students.
Other board members felt that only those who request accommodations would be significantly affected.
“Everyone else just does what they normally do,” board member Jennifer Goldhahn said.
Dana Nelson, an elementary school teacher with the district, addressed the board on Monday during the time for public comment. Some of Nelson’s comments focused on Policy 711, saying that working to offer students privacy and options is ideal but potentially tricky on a practical level.
As an elementary school teacher, Nelson worried that accompanying groups of students to the restrooms would become more difficult, and wondered if older students using alternative restroom options might draw unwanted attention to their choice.
During the regular meeting on Tuesday, the board agreed to post the new document, Policy 711 – “Use of Facilities by Students,” for review.
The board also continued to work on consolidating and updating existing policies, following a recommendation made by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA).
Currently, the district has policies under the designations 300, 400 and 500 pertaining to teachers, administration and support staff. Part of the policy update will blend them into general employee policies.
The policies have been reviewed by both the PSBA and by a representative of Stock and Leader, which provides the district with legal services.
On Monday, Hotchkiss informed the board that if it approved the new Policy 805.2 – “School Security Personnel” the next day, a school security officer would begin work on Wednesday. Hotchkiss said the district would work to introduce the security officer to the students.
The board held its second reading and approved the policy on Tuesday, opening the way for the new security officer to start work.
The board also approved several updated policies, including Policy 306 – “Employment of Summer School Staff,” Policy 309.1 – “Telework,” Policy 314.1 – “HIV Infection,” and Police 347 – “Workers’ Compensation Transitional Return-To-Work.”
The board approved a memorandum of understanding related to the district’s goal of hiring a school psychologist.
Hotchkiss said the district is actively seeking to hire a school psychologist, but until one is found, subcontracting provides an immediate solution. While it does not change the way the district is handling the situation, the MOU highlights the temporary nature of the arrangement.
“The MOU is our commitment that we are not going to subcontract out permanently bargaining unit work,” Hotchkiss said. “That we’re not, as a district, going to continue to seek contracts and never hire a school psychologist, because our collective bargaining agreement would not allow us to do that.”
The MOU allows the district to hire a subcontractor while continuing to look for a full-time psychologist without violating the collective bargaining agreement.
On Monday, Goldhahn asked the board to consider offering a voluntary exit interview for staff who leave the district.
Concerned about turnover, Goldhahn suggested that employees have the chance to conduct an exit interview with the board in order to help the district learn ways it can improve.
Some board members, including board president Michael Wool, disagreed, with Wool saying exit interviews fall outside of the duties of the school board.
Hotchkiss said that in many cases, the issue has less to do with Bermudian Springs and more to do with higher rates of employees leaving the field of education.
“I can tell you, if I went back and looked I would say– I’m just going to give you a number – almost 50% of the people are leaving education,” Hotchkiss said. “Getting out. Not going to another school – they’re done with education. Some of them are different parts of education. But I can tell you that’s the trend I’ve seen the last year and a half, probably, is that in and of itself.”
“It is the most competitive labor market that we have ever seen in schools,” Say said.
It can be difficult for districts to retain employees when they have other tempting offers, with some districts helping teachers pay down debt to attract them.
“So people are jumping more than ever,” Say explained. “It is a labor market that is increasingly unstable. There are not enough teachers. You’re going to have people jumping to other positions.”
Hotchkiss said that in many cases, employees already share with their supervisors their reasons for leaving, and sometimes state them in their resignation letters.
During the meeting, several new staff members took the time to briefly introduce themselves. The board held a reception after the meeting to greet the new employees.
Hotchkiss said he has been pleased with the state of the new school year.
“Certainly with any start you have some hiccups here and there, but I really appreciate the students, the staff, the parents,” Hotchkiss said. “One of my favorite things at this time of the year is, as you drove into night, you can see what makes this place special. There’s just people everywhere and I love that we have facilities now that people are using nonstop. I just want to thank everybody for getting the school year started off to a great success.”
The board will hold a caucus meeting at 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 9.
A regular meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 10.
Both meetings will be held in the administration building board room and streamed live on the district’s YouTube channel.
Imari Scarbrough is a freelance journalist. She was a staff newspaper reporter for five years before becoming a freelancer in 2017. She has written on crime, environmental issues, severe weather events, local and regional government and more.
You can visit her website at ImariJournal.com.