Schools create inclusive climates for transgender students

Law backs districts' transgender accommodations, including access to all facilities, use of chosen name and community outreach
By: | Issue: July, 2015
June 19, 2015

As transgender students win sturdier legal protections from state and federal laws, more district leaders have given members of this growing population rights to choose the names they’ll respond to at roll call, which bathrooms they’ll use and which athletic teams they’ll join.

To support these students in keeping focused on their grades, responsive administrators have worked to improve school climate by educating classmates and staff about the needs and experiences of transgender kids, says Peter DeWitt, an author and former school principal in upstate New York. “The LGBT population has changed dramatically over last 15 years,” says DeWitt, using the acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. “Kids are coming out at a much younger age.”

Students may begin to identify as transgender around age 10, but some have done so as early as kindergarten, says DeWitt, who wrote the book, Dignity for All, (Corwin, 2012) about lesbian, gay and transgender students. He says administrators should ensure their districts have policies that prohibit harassment based on sexual orientation or gender.

Transgender students continue to face hostile school environments, suffering some of the highest levels of harassment from both students and adults, says Jenny Betz, director of education and youth programs for the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education NetworkÑa student advocacy group also known as GLSEN.

Schools should ensure transgender students are being called by their preferred names and gender pronouns. Administrators also should make sure curriculums are inclusive by covering LGBT topics regularly. For example, teachers in all grades can assign books that focus on the experiences of LGBT students.

“When LGBT or transgender students see themselves reflected in the curriculum, they feel more connected to the school, and they have better mental health outcomes and face less victimization because other students are learning about LGBT and breaking down the stereotypes and bias that fuels bullying,” she says.

Perhaps most important for administrators is that they respond to bullying reports by providing counseling or other support to the student, and enforcing appropriate discipline, Betz says.

“There tends to be a lot of focus on bathrooms and lockersÑthat triggers the most drama and reaction,” she says. “Surely those are very important pieces of the puzzle, but there are so many other things schools can and should do to support transgender and gender nonconforming students.”

Protecting equal rights

In Green Bay Area Public Schools in Wisconsin, results from the national Youth Behavior Risk Survey in recent years revealed transgender students felt less safe than did their peers. Transgender students also reported higher rates of drug abuse and thoughts of suicide. The district last year updated its bullying policies to bar discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identification and gender expression, says Barbara Dorff, Green Bay’s executive director of pupil services.

Green Bay’s stance is backed by the federal government. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has told district leaders that, under Title IX, schools must treat students consistent with their gender identity. This includes allowing transgender students to choose which locker rooms, bathrooms and other facilities they use, says Asaf Orr, a staff attorney with the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

And in May, Fairfax County Public Schools passed an amendment that protects transgender students, staff and faculty from discrimination. The updated policy does not immediately change bathroom or locker room rules; rather, transgender students and staff seeking accommodations will be handled case by case, according to The Washington Post.

And more than two dozen states have passed laws or issued policies reinforcing the Title IX protections. A California law passed in 2013 requires that students “be permitted to participate in sex-segregated school programs and activities, including athletic teams and competitions, and use facilities consistent with his or her gender identity, irrespective of the gender listed on the pupil’s records.”

Concerns about allowing transgender students to choose which bathrooms to use are often misplaced, says Betz. “There is zero evidence that shows other students are unsafe when a transgender student uses the bathroom,” Betz says. “There is an incredible amount of evidence that shows transgender students are unsafe in bathroomsÑthose are the students we need to protect.”

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education guidelines say students are solely responsible for determining gender. And some states, such as Wisconsin and Minnesota, have athletics policies.

In Wisconsin, for example, a female student who has started testosterone therapy can play only on male teams. And safety and competitive equity concerns dictate that students transitioning from male to female must undergo testosterone-suppression therapy for a year before playing on a woman’s team.

Middle and high schools should start gay-straight alliance clubs to encourage open dialogue about the challenges transgender students face, Betz says. For instance, Green Bay schools used grant money to hire advisors to launch Gay-Straight Alliances clubs in its middle schools. The clubs, in which gay and straight students advocate together against discrimination, are already established in Green Bay’s high schools.

A big issue is ensuring educators consistently use the name a transgender student has chosen, rather than the name listed on birth certificates or official records. Using the wrong name during attendance could lead to a teacher inadvertently “outing” a student who hasn’t told classmates about his or her gender identity. Also, the wrong gender on a state test could cause undue stress and a low score, Orr says.

Districts now allow students to enroll with a passport. The U.S. State Department allows people to change gender on passports without any further documentation, such as proof of a surgical procedure, Orr says. “When a student gets access to appropriate facilities and is treated consistently with gender identity within the school environment, the kids flourish,” says Orr.

Debunking myths

Early in the process of developing its new “gender inclusion” policy, administrators at Saint Paul Public Schools in Minnesota spoke to transgender students who said they felt marginalized and intimidated by classmates and adults at their schools.

“They wanted to be able to live their lives in school as who they are, and not be asked to check a fundamental aspect of themselves at the door,” says Ryan Vernosh, Saint Paul’s policy and planning administrator who helped craft the policy approved by the school board in March.

Two years ago, policy planning started when a transgender ninth grader was barred from playing on an athletic team that matched her identified gender. Vernosh and other administrators gathered feedback by speaking with students, parents, teachers, union leaders and principals, among other stakeholders; some meetings were one-on-one while others drew up to 40 people.

The policy, which the district spent about a year and a half developing, says the district will respect all students’ expression of their gender identity. It also honors their right to have all staff members call them by their preferred name and gender pronoun. It also encourages district educators to de-emphasize gender as a way of separating students within academic programming. For example, teachers in early grades should no longer put books for girls in pink boxes and books for boys in blue boxes.

The Saint Paul district also will provide students with access to bathrooms and sports team that match the gender with which they identify. Last year, the Minnesota State High School League developed the athletic policy according to new, more inclusive guidelines.

A big myth surrounding the issue is that a student would pretend to be transgender to use a certain bathroom to see others naked or to play on a sports team to gain a competitive advantage. Debunking these mythsÑand detailing the challenges transgender students faceÑwas one way Saint Paul schools broke down some community and district resistance to its new policy, Vernosh says.

“Some of the folks who were really concerned about the policy started to have a better understanding about what it means to be transgender after hearing from several of our youth and our parents of transgender students,” Vernosh says. “It helped tremendously to broaden some people’s perspectives.”

PD and empathy

Professional development is another key aspect of implementing the policy. Training at Saint Paul’s schools began with principals and administrators, and has been expanded to all staff.

The sessions help educators understand the challenges transgender students face in trying to express their identities. Sometimes, adults don’t realize they are unintentionally marginalizing transgender studentsÑsuch as by not using the correct pronoun, Vernosh says.

“We hope to see bullying based on gender identity start to decrease,” Vernosh says. “We hope to see health issuesÑdepression, suicidal thoughtsÑdecrease because the district and the adults who are committed to supporting students have taken a direct stand and codified our beliefs.”

Expanding the curriculum

Driven by community input and student advocacy, San Francisco USD developed 12 years ago its first policy supporting transgender students. Today, the district estimates that about 1 percent of its middle and high school students are transgender, and a number of the district’s kindergartners and first graders identify as transgender, says Kevin Gogin, the district’s director of safety and wellness.

The district has a name and gender change form on its website, which allows transgender students to use it any time and ensures teachers will use appropriate pronouns when referring to students. “If I’m a student identifying as one gender and I keep getting referred to as another, how can I focus? I just feel like I don’t belong,” Gogin says.

Some San Francisco USD schools have designated bathrooms as gender-neutral, but students can use gender-segregated bathrooms that correspond to the sex with which they identify. As for gym class, students who don’t feel comfortable changing around classmates are provided with a private space.

And when it comes to school dress codes, a transgender girl, for example, is held to the same standard as other girls.

Curriculum also plays a role in creating a more inclusive environment. Teachers cover LGBT issues in social studies and language arts. For example, students read books that feature families with same-sex partners. Age-appropriate health lessons, beginning in kindergarten, include classroom discussions of sexual orientation, gender identity, family structure and relationships, Gogin says.

“If our students are preoccupied with feeling unsafe or feeling unwelcome, and we’re not addressing it,” he says, “they’re not going to be able to focus on the business of learning.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.