LUHS school board member Heidi Fink speaks with regard to student bathroom use and district policy on Tuesday, Sept. 26, in Minocqua. (Photos by Trevor Greene/Lakeland Times)
LUHS school board member Heidi Fink speaks with regard to student bathroom use and district policy on Tuesday, Sept. 26, in Minocqua. (Photos by Trevor Greene/Lakeland Times)
Lakeland Union High School’s (LUHS) board of education took no action during its regular meeting Monday regarding a policy proposal for student bathroom use. 
The idea to craft a “cut and dry” policy where the bathroom a student uses is determined by what gender it says on a student’s birth certificate was suggested at the board’s Sept. 13 committee of the whole meeting.
The board, as the committee of the whole did, held its meeting in the auditorium in anticipation of a large crowd. Because the board’s regular meeting had a lot more than just the topic of bathroom use, board president Gary Smith limited the public comment portion to a half hour. 
Twelve members of the community spoke to the board during the public comment portion, including district administrator Bob Smudde. 
LUHS parent Teresa Schmidt was the first to speak. She mentioned the Sept. 13 meeting and said she appreciated the board was able to have a reasonable discussion on tough topics.
She said she was also happy to see Monday’s meeting agenda posted on the front door and hoped students had taken notice, because what is done at board meetings “affect them the most.” 
Schmidt said students really do care and pay attention to what the board does, and that’s because she hears their thoughts from them directly and indirectly. 
With regard to what was discussed at the board’s last meeting, Schmidt said she heard one student subsequently say “so they don’t want me to exist, great.”
“Let that sink in for a second,” she said to the board. “That may not be the message you were trying to say, but that’s the message that got through to the students.”
Schmidt also suggested members of the board strongly take into consideration where they receive information and its validity. 
“I’d like to talk about some of the opinions and anecdotes that people are asking you to use when making decisions, particularly about gender identity,” she said. “So, at your last meeting I heard a lot of ‘scary stories’ with no specifics about alleged locker room assaults and other incidents.”
It was difficult to find evidence supporting such stories and incidents, Schmidt explained. 
“Stories without evidence serve an agenda which is to make people believe the negative incidents which surround LGBTQ people and that transgender and non-binary people are predators, which is simply not true,” she said. “In fact, transgender and non-binary people are more likely to be the victims of a crime than the perpetrators as well.”
From information provided by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Schmidt said the rate of violent victimization of transgender and non-binary people is 2.5 times higher. 
Additionally, according to a 2022 national survey on LGBTQ youth mental health by the non-profit organization The Trevor Project, Schmidt said 73% of LGBTQ youth reported symptoms of anxiety, 58% experienced symptoms of depression and 45% LGBTQ seriously considered attempting suicide, with 14% who attempted suicide. 
The last piece of information Schmidt shared from The Trevor Project survey was that LGBTQ students who found their school to be LGBTQ-affirming reported lower rates of attempted suicide. 
“Your words and your policies matter both for good and for bad,” she said. “A student named Lily spoke very eloquently at your last meeting, and she made a critical point. People do not choose to be a part of the LGBTQ spectrum. It is who they are.”
Policy preventative for LGBTQ students, Schmidt said, will ultimately put students who are already at risk even further at risk of experiencing life threatening mental health conditions.
While Schmidt’s comments didn’t receive a round of applause, others who spoke in favor of a “clear cut” gender policy did. 
Terry Howard of Arbor Vitae said she thought the Sept. 13 committee of the whole meeting was a “great conversation.” 
“Everybody did just a great job,” she said. “I am surprised to see on the agenda tonight that there is not a motion or action on the bathrooms as was proposed at that meeting. … and as long as we’re having this discussion … I just wanna say that from a bathroom perspective, it just doesn't stop during high school hours.”
Gymnastics for children was one example Howard proceeded to give.
“And there might be a little four-year-old girl in the bathroom by themselves with a boy that might be identifying as a female,” she said. “And I think that just leads to a concerning situation. I’m not saying there could be anything wrong but look at that little girl or little boy who could be in the bathroom at that same time.”
In conclusion, Howard said she hopes there will be some sort of action “before there is a lawsuit, before something does happen.”
Wayne Trapp, who received maybe the loudest applause, admitted he wasn’t at the board’s previous meeting. 
“Woah,” he said. “You know something, I rather hear you think about how you’re (going to handle the) lack in school bus drivers … rather than worrying about a bathroom. I never heard anything so ridiculous.”
Besides the driver shortage, Trapp mentioned the board should be worrying about its budgets too, given expected price increases for natural gas come winter. 
Linda Ebbert agreed with Trapp, but did indicate support to have a policy where students would need to use a bathroom in accordance with birth certificate. 
“I agree with Wayne, this is absolutely ridiculous,” she said. “There are more things to worry about in the world today than a bathroom. And as far as being kind and accepting, yes, absolutely. But when it comes down to this bathroom stuff, let’s move on.”
Lori Verbos said Ebbert had a good point and expressed a “main concern” she had following the last meeting. 
“It was discussed to have a policy in place,” she said. “Anybody can say next week, ‘You know today I wanna be a so-and-so. I’m gonna go use the girls bathroom.’ OK, what policy is going to be in place that totally lines up with what is to be accepted and what is not to be accepted?”
Verbos then wanted to know how many students a bathroom use policy could directly affect, giving 100 students as an example. “What about the rest of them? she asked.”
“You are accommodating a mild percentage of students because I’m sure you’re getting harassed by either one of the parents or somebody in the community is guiding you or misguiding you. We taxpayers are not gonna put up with this, and neither are the parents of the other 900 students.” 
Verbos said she’s sure members of the board are currently receiving phone calls from “the minority,” but warned if it continues “pushing” the issue then the majority will speak out.

Smudde’s comments 
At the Sept. 13 meeting, Smudde admitted he didn’t want to discuss topics of gender identity and critical race theory, essentially saying there are other issues which take precedent for the administration at this time.
Smudde at Monday’s meeting stepped down behind the podium where the community members were giving comments.
“I wanna look at all of you when I talk,” he said to the board. “There was a simple solution to all this.”
LUHS has four gender neutral bathrooms, and Smudde said opportunities are available for those who feel uncomfortable in certain situations.
“To say I am livid that we’re talking about this would be beyond (an understatement),” he said. “I pay taxes like everyone else in this room, and what matters is the kids and the kids alone.”
Reiterating his stance, Smudde said the conversation was a distraction. He indicated protocols were already in place to accommodate students in certain situations should remain.

The board’s thoughts 
Board member Heidi Fink was the first member of the board to speak. She said the reason she was the one to open this matter up for discussion is because LUHS doesn’t have a policy in place. 
“The stuff we read in the news all talks about an unwritten policy,” she said. “We have no guidelines. Either way we go, we have no guidelines. My biggest concern when I started this discussion probably eight months ago, nine months ago is we had no way to protect that — and I’m just gonna stereotype — that boy that walks into a girls bathroom because he’s feeling feminine today and they’re having swimming. We have no way to identify who’s going in those bathrooms.”
If there are issues of bullying in bathrooms then that’s an entirely different issue LUHS needs to address separately, Fink said.
“But I’m more concerned about the safety of the little seven-year-old, four-year-old gymnastics girl that’s walking in the bathroom and we may have a guy in there,” she said. “We have no written policy.”
Fink said in speaking with local law enforcement, the school’s policy assists in how law enforcement handles certain situations.
Fink questioned certain policy within Title VII and Title XI, and mentioned another incident in Georgia, where the school district placed policy allowing transgender students the ability to stay in the same hotel with the gender they identify with. 
“We have to protect every student in this school,” she said. “Not just the transgenders, not just the gender identity. … we need to protect everybody. And right now, we have nothing in writing. That was my concern.”
Citing information provided by LUHS administration, Smith said districts have been sued by not allowing transgender persons to use their bathroom of choice. 
“I’m not sure how we can write a policy that would be non-restrictive to everybody,” he said. “I don’t know how to word that, because my role is yes, I look after every student here in Lakeland Union High School, and also the district and the taxpayers. It would be very difficult for me to support a policy that would put us at jeopardy of being sued. So we have to be very careful.” 
Board member Shari Nimsgern suggested putting a policy in place asking students to declare their gender when they register, and then the school would be able to accommodate every student. 
By not having a policy in place is perhaps the district’s “policy,” as suggested by board member Pamela Carroll. 
“When you’ve done something for 40 years in a row this becomes the norm, which is your unwritten policy,” she said. “Which is probably a more reliable situation than if you wrote an actual policy.”
Board member Ann Hunt reminded everyone in attendance of federal and state guidelines the district must follow because of its public school status, making it limited for what the board can actually do. She also encouraged everyone to review current LUHS policies already in place. 
From case law he’s read, board member Barry Seidel suggested a policy put in place for student bathroom use in accordance with a birth certificate could be discriminatory. 
“The other problem is that a lot of this stuff hasn’t settled out yet,” he said. “It hasn’t settled out in the courts, it hasn’t settled out in case law. There’s still some ongoing lawsuits.”
Seidel explained how the board has requested guidance with regard to gender identity and critical race theory but hasn’t received feedback because it’s still being developed. 
“I guess I’m of the opinion we need to move on,” he said. “We need to keep what we have and let the policies and the administrative guidance we have regulate the school the way it has been. We haven’t had many problems, but if we had problems we can address them. This isn’t something that has to be set-in-stone, it can be fluid.”
Trevor Greene may be reached via email at trevorgreene@lakelandtimes.com.