Hamilton County school board passes new policy for transgender student athletes

Staff photo by Tim Barber | The sun sets on the facade of the Hamilton County Department of Education.
Staff photo by Tim Barber | The sun sets on the facade of the Hamilton County Department of Education.

With praise from some board members and remorse from others, the Hamilton County Board of Education on Thursday night passed a policy banning transgender middle and high school athletes from participating in sports based on their gender identity.

The policy passed 5-2, with Karitsa Jones, D-Chattanooga, abstaining and independent Tiffanie Robinson of Chattanooga absent. Independent Jenny Hill of North Chattanooga and independent Marco Perez of Signal Mountain cast the two dissenting votes.

"I speak often here about the importance of finding a place to belong and finding a place where people know your name and where you are known and loved and cared for," Perez said before the vote. "I want our transgender, gay and lesbian students to know that we do care about you. I want you to know that you belong."

The new policy defines gender as a student's biological sex.

"In accordance with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, no person shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, be treated differently from another person or otherwise be discriminated against in any athletic program of the school," the policy states. "A student's gender for purposes of participation in middle or high school athletics must be classified as the student's sex at birth."

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The board voted on the matter to be current with state law. Non-compliance could mean the district would lose a portion of state funding.

Board member Rhonda Thurman, R-Hixson, thanked God for the law and said it should be common sense. It's a matter of safety and fairness, she said.

"Having played sports my entire life there is a difference," Thurman said. "If you think a girl can play third base and fast pitch softball against a guy, play halfway home, you've lost your mind. I would not do it. There's no way because you will be eating the softball. Boys are so much stronger, so much bigger."

Hill said she disagrees with the law.

"I don't care that it's a law. I think it is a bad law," she said. "Most importantly, I have witnessed in the schools that I represent trans students who have been deeply hurt by other laws that our legislature has passed that target them and make them less of a person. That is not what any student in Hamilton County Schools should expect when they walk in the door."

Perez expressed dismay that the board was being told it had no choice in the matter - that the policy just had to be implemented.

"I am deeply concerned that we haven't had a debate," Perez said. "We are being told by the state, probably because maybe a majority of the state would agree with this, I don't know, that this is the law."

Hill made a motion to reject the policy but it failed.

Board member James Walker, R- Birchwood, agreed with Thurman. Teachers and coaches already face backlash from parents for cutting an athlete based on performance, Walker said, and allowing transgender athletes to participate on teams based on their gender identity would only make matters worse.

"I can't imagine what a coach, one of our teachers, one of our employees will have to go through if somebody accuses them of cutting their child because of their gender," Walker said. "I just think it gives somebody something else to latch on to."

Walker added that he's not a bad person.

"I care about every student that we have and everything that they go through and all the differences and all that," Walker said. "I'm going to love everybody, no matter what. I'm not a bad guy because I'm not going to pretend along with somebody else. If that comes off as hateful, then it does."

Perez wrapped up his thoughts by telling trans students of Hamilton County that they are loved.

"You do have a place to belong," Perez said "You do have a place that you can call home. Your teachers love you. Hopefully, your classmates love you. And hopefully, the administration will stand by you."

Contact Carmen Nesbitt at cnesbitt@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @carmen_nesbitt.

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