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San Antonio Independent School District has become Bexar County’s first district to add sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression to its nondiscrimination policies. On Monday night the SAISD board of trustees made the changes official following the efforts of high school senior Ruby Polanco.
Growing up in SAISD, Polanco had seen the standard nondiscrimination statement on emails, parent letters, and other district communication. “It’s everywhere,” she said.
The statement uses standard language prohibiting discrimination against students on the basis of “race, color, religion, gender, national origin, age, disability, or any other basis prohibited by law.” A similar policy is in place for employees.
The new policy, effective immediately, will add gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation to that list. District officials explained that it will take some time for the online policy manual to reflect the updates.
It was not until the summer of 2016 that Polanco noticed that sexual orientation and gender identity were missing from the statement. “I wondered if it was a Texas thing,” she said. Upon further research, she found that while none of the districts in Bexar County included LGBTQIA identities in their nondiscrimination language, other urban districts did, including Austin, Houston, Dallas, Corpus Christi ISDs, and many more.
At Young Women’s Leadership Academy (YWLA), “not straight” identities are not a problem, Polanco said. She sees her classmates and teachers as progressive and open-minded. A few of her schoolmates have been open about their identity journeys.
However, she knows this is not the case for everyone. She works at Bill Miller B-B-Q with students from her neighborhood who attend Lanier High School. Her coworkers and neighbors have a different school experience.
“At traditional high schools it’s harder to be non-conformative because they are afraid of the consequences,” Polanco said.
Students often face bullying for their LGBTQIA identities, said Robert Salcido Jr., statewide field coordinator with Equality Texas. While the bullying may continue, SAISD students can now know that they have codified support from the district.
Polanco saw the same thing as she began to research the topic more thoroughly. The data showed that a majority of LGBTQIA teens face some sort of discrimination in their community, including school. “I think everyone kind of unconsciously knows that,” Polanco said. Still, having that hunch confirmed by data was powerful for her.
Once Polanco had taken up the cause, she was a young woman on a mission. She started with her psychology teacher and worked her way up to conversations with Superintendent Pedro Martinez, SAISD Board President Patti Radle, State Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio), and others. “I talked to literally anyone I could get my hands on,” she said.
She started an online petition, and her classmates helped spread the word. Her peers at Lanier also were supportive.
Polanco followed the procedure for changing policy, tenaciously working her way through the bureaucracy, demonstrating an appreciation for the process, YWLA Principal Delia McLerran said. Polanco has an understanding and appreciation for protocol, McLerran added, “but when things need to be changed she advocates for it.”
Speaking to the SAISD Board on Monday night, Polanco was respectful but conveyed urgency. It reflected the confidence McLerran had observed, as well as the 17-year-old’s ability to challenge an institution.
“[SAISD] has failed to keep abreast with the social and political advancements of today,” Polanco said. “SAISD has to advance with the times.” She challenged the district to lead the county toward equal protection for all students.
Polanco said she hopes SAISD schools can become safer places for teens as they work through issues and become confident in their identities. For many of her peers, their Hispanic homes and Catholic churches are not as supportive as they would hope. Things are changing, she said, but many are slow to understand the less visible non-conformities.
“It’s prevalent within the traditional Mexican community [to believe] that gay is bad, and it’s not real unless you’ve been that way since you were little,” she said.
Polanco is not sure how much the nondiscrimination policy will change student culture, but she hopes that those affected will feel the support of the district and those who came together to change the policy.
On Monday, Radle pulled the item from the consent agenda in order to offer public comment and to commend Polanco for her leadership.
“I just wanted to have an opportunity to say how proud we are of our student Ruby Polanco for bringing this forward,” Radle said. “Your leadership on this has been remarkable.”
Radle will be part of a panel discussion on transgender youth with the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center on Saturday. In preparing for the event, she has been learning more about how these issues touch local students’ lives. That preparation, she said, has shed new light on the nondiscrimination policy.
“It’s been really beautiful to collect stories, to hear stories, to reflect on what this [policy] item is all about,” Radle said.
Trustee James Howard (D2) told Polanco she had a promising future in law, should she choose that path.
The item passed unanimously with all seven trustees in attendance.
The fact that the district added the protections for teachers as well is especially encouraging, Salcido said. LGBTQIA teachers have long faced overt discrimination, and have been targeted by anti-homosexual policies such as California’s Proposition 6 in 1978.
The current political climate reinforces the need for LGBTQIA protections in schools, Salcido said, “especially considering the laws and bills that were presented during our legislative session and the special session.”
So-called “bathroom bills” dominated much of the discussion throughout Texas’ 85th Legislature and subsequent special session. Championed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the bills sought to limit bathroom use in public facilities to the gender on individuals’ birth certificates. The bill died in both regular and special sessions, but will likely surface again if Patrick remains in office.
Equality Texas, which has been working with SAISD for years, encourages all school districts to add gender identities to their nondiscrimination policies.
Salcido said that Polanco had succeeded where his organization had not. Over the years Equality Texas has met with SAISD board members, including Radle, making the case for such language to be added to the district’s nondiscrimination ordinance. Those meetings did not see results, he said.
“The fact that [this time] it was a student-led initiative speaks volumes, because it comes from someone directly affected,” Salcido said.