COVID-19 sheds light on persistent transgender privacy risks in education

Some student information systems only allow online learning platforms to use the legal names of students, which can reveal the gender identity of transgender students
By: | April 14, 2020 GrapeImages

The shift to mandatory online learning as a result of the coronavirus has put a spotlight on persisting gender identity issues in schools that affect the privacy and safety of transgender students.

From chat rooms to virtual test sites and discussion forums, schools are now relying more on online learning platforms, which generate student usernames based on their legal name in student information systems. However, some SIS only allow users to enter students’ legal names. In these cases, the online learning platforms that generate student usernames only have the option of using their legal names, which can inadvertently reveal the gender identity of transgender students without their consent.

This is a violation of the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and violates any state or school transgender policy that protects transgender safety and privacy, according to the Campaign for Southern Equality, a group that works to build a South where LGBTQ people are equal in every part of life.

Some states, including North Carolina, mandate the use of systems that only include a legal name field, and advocacy groups are pressing for systems to include legal and preferred name fields.

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“Before the coronavirus, many transgender students refused to participate in online or virtual aspects of classes, preferring to take a zero grade rather than disclose their legal name,” says Adam Polaski, communications director of the Campaign for Southern Equality. “However, all learning is now virtual and online, which is what makes this issue so critical right now. These systems are forcing schools to violate their own policies, as well as state and federal privacy laws.”

“While some student information systems provide a field to enter a preferred name, mandated state tests and other crucial student forms such as transcripts will always use the legal names of students,” says Lenny Shad, chief information and innovation officer at District Administration. “This is a much larger issue than adding a preferred name field on a student information system,” adds Shad, who has served as CIO of Houston ISD and Katy ISD, both in Texas. “Students need to change their names legally because the state process is going to govern by that legal name.”

How to comply with your school transgender policy and protect transgender students

Some schools that must keep their platform can bypass this issue by downloading and editing internal documents from the system, such as class rosters, yearbook lists, email addresses and club listings. Unfortunately, schools can’t edit lists and reports that are generated by the state.

“For those that can, office staff have to manually change every student who has an affirmed name different from their legal name and an affirmed gender different from their legal gender, and then use the revised list or report,” says Polaski. “This requires anyone who uses the system to have a list of all the transgender students and to make the corrections right, for every student, every single time, or violate transgender safety and privacy.”

He adds, “It is time and resource intensive, but it is possible in these particular areas, if a school is willing to make the effort.”

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