Omar Jamal speaking during a District 191 Listening Session in the Diamondhead Education Center in Burnsville, on December 8, 2022. Credit: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

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The listening session hadn’t started yet, but dozens of parents were gathered at the Burnsville school board headquarters on Thursday night. About 70 people, mostly Somali parents, had filed into district headquarters. 

“This is good,” said Salma Hussein, the principal of Gideon Pond Elementary School. “This is democracy.”

The district adopted a new policy in November providing guidelines on supporting transgender students. The policy includes a clause about keeping a student’s transgender identity confidential—including from the student’s parents—unless the student authorized the school to share that information.

Najma Hussien, a district parent, said that she wanted every child in the community to be safe. “That’s why we are a community,” she said.

But parents need to be involved, she said.

“For me to be concealed from what my child is going through, it’s not fair,” she said.

The following Monday, 300 parents attended the monthly Somali Parent Committee meeting, a group whose attendance typically numbers a dozen parents. Mothers and fathers took turns on the microphone to address Superintendent Dr. Theresa Battle and Assistant Superintendent Chris Bellmont with policy questions. What authority, they asked, does the school district have to teach their children about gender identity and sexuality? They also inquired if Islamic culture could be taught in schools, since the district has a large population of Somali Muslim students.

The policy passed the school board with little fanfare on November 17. Then, on December 1, Alpha News—a conservative website aligned with a Republican donor —published an article about the policy. That article ran under the headline “Experts: Burnsville district can now conceal students’ gender identity from parents.”

District officials say that article was based on misinformation and unfortunate wording. From there, rumors spread on social media and throughout Minnesota’s Somali community.

One child at Gideon Pond had heard a rumor that teachers were giving students candy to turn boys into girls and vice versa, Salma recounted.

“We can’t even give Tylenol,” she said.

Many parents who came to speak at Thursday’s listening session said that they do not have a problem with transgender community members. However, they did not want information they might need to help their child withheld from them.

Burnsville–Eagan–Savage District 191 serves about 8,000 students, 14 percent of whom speak Somali at home. In some district schools, Somali kids make up a majority of the student population. 

Somali parents at the meeting emphasized that they wanted the school district to allow them to honor their religious and cultural values. At least two Muslim faith groups in the Twin Cities held meetings over the weekend to address misinformation and community concerns.

Yusuf Abdulle, the executive director of the Islamic Association of North America, said about 50 people gathered, including faith leaders and educators, to discuss the situation. The group hopes to dispel misinformation, educate parents about their rights, and encourage them to become more involved in their school systems, he said.

“Parents’ children are their children,” he said. Parents must give their consent before, say, a school nurse dispenses medicine, Yusuf said. The same rule should apply to school curriculum. 

Yusuf encouraged parents to express their opinions on things they don’t want their children exposed to. “They should be very brave and proud and very clear about that,” he said. 

Somali parents at the listening session raised questions about how a district transgender policy relates to their own community. National studies have documented a rapid increase in the number of U.S. children who identify as transgender. But there’s no clear estimate how many Somali students—or Somalis in general—identify as LGBTQ. The topic is not discussed widely. In 2020, an LGBTQ publication in Minneapolis profiled Queer Somalis, an online group with strict privacy protections. In a 2017 Guardian article about Minnesota’s Somali LGBTQ community, only one source consented to use their real name.

In arguing for the new policy, the school district has cited sobering trends in youth mental health. The 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health from the Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on LGBTQ youth suicide prevention, showed that 45 percent of LGBTQ students considered suicide in the past year; 14 percent attempted it. 

Those rates are higher in communities of color. Students who reported attending schools they considered LGBTQ-affirming had lower rates of suicide attempts.

That’s why the district wanted to pass the policy now, Salma explained. It’s an issue deeply felt in Burnsville: Two district high school students died by suicide in recent months.

What would this policy actually do, and why is it happening now?

The Burnsville policy follows a template from the Minnesota School Boards Association, a nonprofit education advocacy group, which many districts across the state have adopted.

The Burnsville text states, “To ensure the safety and well-being of the student, District employees shall not disclose a student’s gender identity, sex assigned at birth, transgender identity, or information that may reveal a student’s gender identity (e.g., birth name) to anyone, including, but not limited to, other staff members, students, or parents of other students, unless such disclosure has been authorized by the student or their parent(s)/guardian(s).” 

For example, a child may tell a teacher they want to be called Nicole, rather than Nick, and use “she” or “they” pronouns instead of “he.” But the student may not have discussed this change with their parents yet, and does not want a school staffer to tell them.

In practice, however, districts can only withhold personal student information from parents under very limited circumstances, said Aaron Tinklenberg, the district’s communications director.

Under the state’s data practice law, schools and other government authorities can only “withhold data” from parents if the student specifically requests that the information remain private and the district believes that disclosing the information could put the student in physical or emotional harm, Tinklenberg explained.

That could mean the school has reason to believe, for example, that sharing a student’s gender identity with their parents could lead to physical or emotional abuse. Multiple factors go into that determination, which are outlined in a different Burnsville district policy. 

District officials say that Burnsville’s data privacy policy, which was already on the books, spells out the state law limiting when a district can withhold information from parents. And because it is Minnesota law, Burnsville school leaders add, it already applies to all districts and charter schools. 

The listening session

Many attendees recorded video of the listening session. Credit: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

The superintendent, Theresa Battle, and two school board members, Abigail Alt and Anna Werb, sat at tables on one end of the room with microphones for Thursday’s regularly scheduled biweekly listening session. A desk for community speakers sat opposite them. And behind that desk, community members filed into a standing-room-only crowd. Many recorded phone videos of the proceedings. 

The first speaker at the listening session, Rose Nelson, wore a sweatshirt with a rainbow image and rainbow-colored shoelaces.

“It is critically important that we protect the students’ privacy,” said Nelson, a Burnsville resident and queer-mental-health advocate.

“Many students live in environments where it may be dangerous to reveal this information, and the student deserves the ability to come out to their parents or guardians only when they are ready.”

Yasmin Abdi, a mother of four Burnsville children, spoke next. In the past, she said, she trusted school staff to let her know if something happened to her kids. This new policy changed that trust, she said.

“We have every right to know if my child has anything or has any difference so I can help them,” she said. “Me and a lot of parents are afraid that we cannot help our children if we are not included.”

She asked that the school board revise the policy to include parents.

One by one, parents sat at the desk and voiced their concerns to school leadership. They hoped for a conversation, they said.

Mohamed Ali, a father of four district students, said his family was “happy and thriving” in Burnsville schools, until this policy. He understood the safety risks for some students, he said. “But we don’t understand the freedom of that group, and where our freedom starts,” he said.

His daughter had opted out of a class which would have provided education on the LGBTQ community, he said.

“As a parent of District 191, I feel disregarded, ignored in this choice being made for my child,” he said. “My child felt disregarded and alienated from her individuality and her beliefs. My child’s sense of belonging was questioned by a staff member, in othering her for choosing not to be in that course.”

He, too, requested a revision of the policy.

Mohamed Ali addressed the board members, reflecting on how his daughter felt when she opted out of a class that addressed LGBTQ issues. Credit: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

Standing in front of the speaker’s table, Omar Jamal, a frequent commentator on events in the Somali community, praised the American tradition of democracy. “People in this country have a history of disagreeing with each other without wishing ill on the other person,” he said.

The Somali community had held a large meeting the previous night, he said.

“There is a strong sentiment and feeling towards some kind of new law or rules set by the district,” Omar said. “In order to fix it, we need to have a very civil discourse and discussion about it.”

He added that he was considering what recourse the community might have if they could not reach an agreement, and that he had consulted “one of the top education lawyers” in St. Paul.

‘As a district, we apologize for the confusion this caused’

The civil tone at this Burnsville listening session marked a contrast from the rancor that has come to characterize confrontations at school board meetings throughout Minnesota and across the country. But the parents’ passion was clear.

“We want our voices to be heard by the board members,” said Mohamed Ali as the listening session concluded. 

They would wait to see what the board members decided, Mohamed said. But if they didn’t like the answer, parents had choices. Some parents had already taken their kids to charter schools, he said. Others might consider moving.

“I came from the hottest place on the planet to live in the coldest state in America,” he said. “But if my kids’ decision came to it, I will live in Alaska.” The crowd applauded.

Chris Bellmont, the district’s assistant superintendent, thanked the crowd for coming.

“We know that mistakes have been made, and communications have been wrong,” Bellmont said. “We must make steps not just to listen and hear and change, but then to fix the harm.”

He hoped that process would happen through ongoing discussions, he said. As the listening session came to an end, the regular school board meeting was starting in the room next door. Bellmont said that he hoped the conversation could continue with a message from board chair, Lesley Chester.

District officials passed out copies of Chester’s statement, in English and Somali.

“One of the main concerns we’ve heard is that these guidelines mean we’re going to start denying parents access to information about their children. This isn’t true,” Chester’s statement read. “It’s more accurate to say that district staff will provide information to parents about their students in almost all instances.”

These guidelines were designed to make school environments safe and welcoming for transgender students, just as the district hopes to make to make school safe and welcoming for students of different racial and religious backgrounds, the board chair’s letter continued.

“As a district, we apologize for the confusion this caused,” Chester wrote. “We are planning to update the language to be more clear about our ongoing commitment to work with families. We appreciate parents’ feedback and will always respect parents’ and students’ rights.”

This revision will clarify the policy without abridging the protections for transgender students, Tinklenberg, the district spokesperson, said.

‘As a public school, we serve all students, including transgender students’

Salma Hussein, principal at Gideon Pond Elementary, speaks with parents after the listening session on December 8. Credit: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

As the board meeting across the hall addressed truth in taxation, Salma Hussein—the only female Somali principal in the state—spoke with parents in the doorway of the room where the listening session had taken place. “I tell my Somali families, we teach kids to love who they are and to respect who other people are,” she said. “Most people understand that, but…social media!”

Parents had put their coats on, but they were not ready to leave. Many seemed encouraged by what they’d heard in the listening session, though they still had questions. And some hinted that their concerns were not limited to issues with parental notification.

“Everybody has to have a safe haven,” one mother said, expressing support for LGBTQ students.

Another said she felt uncomfortable with her child learning about LGBTQ issues in school. 

“I already have those forms to opt out of sex education,” she said. “Parents should have a right.”

“They do,” Salma said. “No one has taken any rights.”

“Even though my two boys are not transgender,” the mother continued, “and InshaAllah they will not be!” She crossed her fingers. “InshaAllah!”

“The issue doesn’t concern you, sis,” Salma responded. “Your kids are not transgender.”

Salma and the two mothers moved to the larger room outside the listening session, so their conversation would not disrupt the school board meeting. A father approached Salma and asked whether the policy could be changed.

“Brother, we are a public school,” she replied. “And as a public school, we serve all students, including transgender students.”

“We’re not against transgender,” the father said. The policy was not about transgender issues, he said; it was about keeping information from parents about their kids.

Salma pulled up her phone to demonstrate the title of the policy: “Administrative guidelines for supporting transgender and gender-expansive students.”

“Why now?” he asked. “Everything was fine, basically, two months ago.”

“Everything was not fine,” Salma said. “There’s been students who felt not welcomed in the community, in the world, and they took their lives. So what [District] 191 is doing is communicating to students who identify as transgender that our schools are safe. You are welcome in 191.”

“I understand about that,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with LGBT. I have neighbors, friends.”

“Perfect,” Salma said. “Me too.”

“My concern is encouraging or putting thoughts to my kids,” he said. “That’s my concern first. And the second part is keeping that from me.”

“I understand you, brother,” Salma said. “And I want you to understand me, too. We have to understand each other. When I work at Gideon Pond Elementary, all I say is, be proud of who you are, and embrace people for who they are.”

Abdi Mohamed contributed reporting.

Clarification: This piece has been updated to better reflect parent comments about LGBTQ issues and identity.

If you or a loved one are struggling with thoughts of suicide, help is available.

You can contact the National Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing or texting 988.

Crisis mental health resources for LGBTQ youth are also available through the Trevor Project. You can find more information here.

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...