Like many school districts in New Hampshire and across the country, Durham’s Oyster River School district didn’t have a transgender-inclusive non-discrimination policy until confronted with the reality that a transgender student would be enrolling.
Unlike in many other school districts, however, staff and administrators at Oyster River looked at the situation and decided that, instead of creating an ad-hoc policy for one transgender student, they would take the opportunity to go all the way, and craft a comprehensive, district-wide policy for all transgender students, current and future.
Jason Baker is a school counselor at Oyster River High School. It was the winter of 2014-2015 when a student told Jason he would be transitioning. From there, Jason knew the school district had no choice but to take action. But Jason didn’t think the school district’s response should be purely reactionary. Instead, he wanted the district to think long-term.
With the number of openly transgender people double what it was 10 years ago, and on the rise, Jason knew this specific student was just the first of many transgender students to come through the Oyster River school system. So he took the lead on crafting an official policy aimed at ensuring transgender students are fully integrated into the school, and have the opportunity to fairly and equally participate in all school related activities.
“Really the writing was on the wall after talking to that student,” Jason said. “I knew we would be faced with this again at some point, and I needed to know: What is our official stance on restrooms, locker rooms, using pronouns, things like that? I told my superintendent and my principal: ‘We need to have an official policy on this.”
The superintendent at Oyster River, James Morse, was more than receptive to the idea—he was already familiar with the issue, and wanted to get out ahead of it.
Before becoming the superintendent at Oyster River, Morse spent 25 years as a superintendent in Maine—3 of those in the Portland School District. While he was there, Portland schools welcomed a transgender student who had problems finding acceptance in another school district.
“That case in Maine really made me aware of it,” said James. “Being in a situation in Portland to open doors to a child who was struggling made me aware of it.”
“I’m looking at what I would want for my son or daughter, or my grandchildren. I would want them to have an education that is incredible. All these other issues should not be obstacles.” — Oyster River Superintendent, James Morse
For James, there was never a question as to whether or not to accept this new transgender student and work to create a positive and inclusive learning environment where they could thrive.
“I’m looking at what I would want for my son or daughter, or my grandchildren. I would want them to have an education that is incredible. All these other issues should not be obstacles.”
So James and Jason pulled together the right people, including principals and the district’s lead counselor, and together they put together a draft policy—the first district-wide policy in New Hampshire regarding transgender students.
“This is a civil rights issue, and we dealt with it like any other case,” Jason said. “You can’t deny one person their civil liberties because something else might happen. That’s hard for some to wrap their heads around, but we went full steam ahead.”
He took the lead on community outreach, and shepherded the policy as it evolved through many, many conversations with parents, students, and other members of the Oyster River community. In the end, James and Jason said it received no serious pushback.
“We’re in a unique community. We’re a pocket that is pretty forward-thinking and open-minded,” Jason said.
When James and Jason eventually presented the policy to the school board, it passed unanimously on the initial vote. James said he didn’t get a single negative email, letter or phone call after that. On the second read, it again passed unanimously and became district policy.
At that point, Jason and James started receiving messages from other school districts, expressing interest in Oyster River’s transgender-inclusive policies and seeking advice on how to pass those policies in other communities, including ones that might be less receptive.
“I know there are pockets that have faced backlash on whether to have a policy or not. But fortunately that hasn’t been an issue here. People ask me, ‘How did you deal with parents? How did you deal with the community?’ and I don’t know what to say, because our community just embraced this.” — Oyster River School Counselor, Jason Baker
For Jason’s part, he’s happy to be a part of a community that shared in his belief that transgender students deserve to be treated fairly and equally, and should have access to the same quality education as all other students.
“I know there are pockets that have faced backlash on whether to have a policy or not. But fortunately that hasn’t been an issue here. People ask me, ‘How did you deal with parents? How did you deal with the community?’ and I don’t know what to say, because our community just embraced this.”