Transgender issues have long been in the shadows of society—and in schools. But that’s not true any longer. Today, transgender students are demanding rights previously denied them, and schools are adjusting—some with more ease than others. In my district in Boulder, CO, a committed group collaborated to come up with a list of solid policies and plans that now guide us and ensure that all students, including transgender students, are treated fairly.
We live in a complex, evolving country; no one knows that better than educators. Our involvement with all children in this rich nation—and our commitment to treat them all with dignity and fairness while making schools inviting, exciting places to learn—put us right in the midst of the very real lives of millions of children and families. And this commitment brings huge challenges with it.
Complex societal issues often have to be confronted and resolved first in schools. And right now the need for transgender students to feel comfortable in school and have the same opportunities to learn, feel safe, and thrive sits front and center.
In my district, we took critical steps on this journey thanks to a coalition of parents, advocates for students who identify as transgender, educators who recognized the need for change, and courageous students who are willing to trust the policies and tone we have put in place.
Not every step has been easy, and we’ve had to revise our approach in relation to this complex issue, but we now have policies and procedures in place that protect the rights of students who are transgender, and we have a school culture that welcomes all students, staff, and families. In fact, now that we see how important this action is, we have also explicitly expanded the policies to include our employees.
Recently, the Obama administration required that, for school districts to receive federal funding, they must allow students to use the bathroom and locker room of the gender with which they identify. That decision has clarified things, but also shed new light on the challenges sometimes faced in schools by students who identify as transgender.
“They are vulnerable, and I think it’s part of our obligation as a society to make sure everybody is treated fairly, and our kids are all loved and protected, and that their dignity is affirmed,” President Obama said when announcing the new policy in May.
This action came at a time when North Carolina and the U.S. Department of Justice were filing lawsuits over a state law that required students to use the facilities that corresponded to the gender they were assigned at birth (the gender noted on their birth certificates). Eventually, 21 states became parties to lawsuits against the administration, asserting that it had bypassed the necessary procedures to create new federal regulations.
Other states took an opposing view, even before the Obama administration’s announcement. This included California, which in 2013 developed a policy that gave transgender students the right to participate in school activities according to the gender with which they identified.
Some school districts (like mine) already had established such policies—in places like Chicago, New York, and the School District of Springfield Township near Philadelphia, which earlier this year became the first district in Pennsylvania to adopt a policy recognizing the rights of students to use the name, pronoun, and facilities that align with the gender with which they identify.
“The School District of Springfield Township shall accept a student’s asserted gender identity when it is determined to be part of the student’s core identity. Staff members shall not question or disregard a student’s assertion of gender identity unless district staff have a credible basis for believing that the student is asserting a particular gender identity for an improper purpose,” the policy states.
Boulder Valley Policy
Over the years, Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) had welcomed and supported the transitions of several students who identified as transgender before we passed a comprehensive policy in 2012. It was a collaborative effort benefiting from the energy, knowledge, and commitment of a unique mix of people from our staff, schools, larger community, and those who have expertise with LGBTQ issues.
The mission of the Boulder Valley School District is “to create challenging, meaningful, and engaging learning opportunities so that all children thrive and are prepared for successful, civically engaged lives.” That goal is essential to our strategic plan, the Success Effect. In order to thrive, all aspects of students’ diverse identities must be positively recognized so students are valued, respected, included, and safe to be themselves. Additionally, our district is proud of its long-standing commitment to “Excellence and Equity.”
Our 2012 guidelines were defined as a “protocol for schools and district staff to address the needs of any BVSD student or employee who is transgender and/or gender nonconforming and clarify how law and policy should be implemented in situations where questions may arise about how to protect the legal rights or safety of such individuals.” We noted at the time that these guidelines were a framework for the schools and might need to be further developed. That is an important point.
These guidelines do not anticipate every situation that might occur with respect to students and staff who are transgender or gender nonconforming, and the needs of each student and staff member must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. The policy has been formally revised twice as we’ve learned more about the needs and responses of our students and families.
As the U.S. Department of Education stated in its May 2016 publication Examples of Policies and Emerging Practices for Supporting Transgender Students, “the education community continues to develop and revise policies and practices to address the rights of transgender students and reflect our evolving understanding and the individualized nature of transgender students’ needs.”
There are good resources out there that can serve as models for a district or school policy, but we found—as most districts will—that we had unique needs and circumstances that made us revisit the policy. And we think it will continue to grow and change. In our guidelines, which protect the rights of both students and staff, we first spelled out our goals and defined a number of terms used in this discussion, including “gender identity,” “gender expression,” and “gender nonconforming.” We then clearly stated what it meant for a student to disclose their gender identity:
“Any student may inform a school staff member of their strong desire to be consistently recognized at school using their stated gender identity, and this request should be acted upon respectfully. The school shall accept the gender identity that each student asserts; and there is no medical or mental health diagnosis or treatment threshold that students must meet in order to have their gender identity recognized and respected. Students ready to socially transition may initiate a process at the school to change their name, pronoun, and access to programs, activities, and facilities consistent with their gender identity.”
The guidelines address the following items:
Privacy. Students have a right to keep their status private; staff must respect that, and the school should work with parents or guardians about this issue. “Information about a student’s transgender status, legal name, or biological sex assigned at birth also may constitute confidential information,” according to the guidelines.
Official records. While the district must maintain a file with the student’s name of record, it will make certain that information is kept confidential.
Names and pronouns. The school must use the name and gender pronoun chosen by the student; continued use of the incorrect one is a violation of policy.
Gender-segregated activities. Schools should reduce or eliminate the practice of separating students by gender, but when it is the procedure, students should be in a group corresponding to their identity.
Restroom accessibility. Students have access to the restroom that corresponds to their gender identity, and transgender students who want increased privacy should have access to a singlestall restroom, but no student shall be required to use such a restroom.
Locker room. Use will be assessed on a case-by-case basis, with the goal of maximizing the student’s social integration and equal opportunity to participate in physical education classes and sports, ensuring the student’s safety and comfort, and minimizing stigmatization of the student. Transgender students should have access to the locker room that corresponds to their gender identity consistently asserted at school and should have access to a private dressing area if requested.
School activities and programs. We provide guidelines for different scenarios, but generally make certain that no transgender student is kept from participating. We assess sleeping arrangements on a case-by-case basis.
Physical education classes and sports. For physical education classes and intramural sports, students can participate based on the gender with which they identify.
Dress codes. Students who are transgender and gender nonconforming have the right to dress in a manner consistent with their gender identity or gender expression. In general, schools may not adopt dress codes that restrict students’ clothing or appearance on the basis of gender.
Our policy addresses discrimination and harassment, following the guidelines we already had in place for those issues and using those reporting forms and procedures. It also addresses issues related to staff members who identify as transgender and spells out their rights in the school system.
Communication Is Key
We firmly believe that, while confidentiality is critical, communication about these issues is very important. When the issue first arises, we make every effort to gather as much information as we can from the student and family, and design a transition and school response that will help them be comfortable and successful. We developed a “gender transition plan” that helps the school, the student, and their families work together to make a change in gender status easier. The plan allows a family to set the tone for what the process looks like, and it can really vary based on the student. For instance, some students are very public with their identity and are willing to share, while other students want to maintain significant levels of confidentiality. It is important to note that a possible challenge here is when families are not supportive of the student’s gender identity or transition. Working on the plan together can help open doors of communication that may lead to a deeper level of understanding among family members.
We have worked diligently to inform our school community and the community at large about these policies—and about transgender youth in general. We’ve been transparent to the media, and I’ve discussed this issue in a variety of forums, including a panel discussion on transgender youth in October 2015. This event provided me with an opportunity to engage in conversations with two teens who identify as transgender. It helped me understand more deeply the challenges faced by students in our school system, from sports involvement to bathroom choices.
Training in connection with the development of a nondiscrimination policy that addresses gender identity and expression is obviously key, but it must be an ongoing process to keep staff conscious of the needs of this group and to inform new staff members of the policy, given the fact that such policies are not always in place in other districts.
Additionally, communication with those who are concerned about, or opposed to, our policies has been important to us. Any new policy for schools, as we all know, gets attention. Policies like this one can be controversial and generate strong feelings.
A Necessary Journey
We have all learned that we must be sensitive to all interests, especially knowing that we have a responsibility to all children and their parents to provide a safe, welcoming environment where students can thrive. I have found that, to a large degree, when parents understand what transgender and gender nonconforming mean, they embrace our policy. And I’ve repeatedly found our students very willing to adapt and welcome students who are transgender.
One success story has been Shannon Axe, whose story was revealed in detail in the Denver Post, including how well she generally has been treated by fellow students. Her earlier life had not been easy, and educators had not been fair to her, but she says things improved dramatically when she came to our district, and her experience is very satisfying to hear.
“Now,” according to the newspaper, “the outgoing girl who bounces through high school in a pack of long-haired beauties and does back flips on stage in her pink-laced tap shoes, says ‘I’d rather go to school than have a weekend.'”
Bruce K. Messinger, PhD, is superintendent of Boulder Valley School District in Boulder, CO. The Colorado Association of School Executives (CASE) named Messinger Colorado’s 2016 Superintendent of the Year.
In May, NASSP’s Board of Directors approved a position statement on transgender rights.
The statement was formulated to “acknowledge concerns related to marginalization and institutional bias associated with transgender students; state the association’s opposition to legislation and policies that discriminate against transgender students; and to provide recommendations for federal, state, and local policymakers and school leaders on how to better support transgender students in the K–12 education system.”
The position statement points out that “a climate conducive to the educational success of transgender students remains elusive in many schools,” noting that a Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) survey found transgender students were more likely than others to have a negative experience and feel unsafe at school, and that about half had been prevented from using their preferred name or using a bathroom or locker room for the gender they identified with. The survey also found that 31 percent had been prevented from wearing clothes considered inappropriate based on their “legal sex.”
The NASSP position statement notes that 14 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws prohibiting such discrimination, and the federal government has ruled that discrimination in schools violates Title IX discrimination restrictions. Several states have adopted eligibility rules that allow students to perform on teams connected to the gender with which they identify.
The position statement also says, however, that several states are considering legislation that will discriminate against these students. “The Human Rights Campaign reported in February 2016 that 44 anti-transgender bills had been filed in 16 states; more than double the amount in 2015. Twenty-three of the bills are targeted specifically at children in schools, including legislation regarding school sports and public school facilities.”
The statement goes on to recommend action by legislators and notes that principals must make certain that “students from diverse backgrounds and identities are affirmed, supported, and assured equitable educational opportunities and access to school and community-based support services.”
“The principal’s primary responsibility is to create and sustain a school environment in which each student is known, accepted and valued, trusted and respected, cared for and encouraged to be an active and responsible member of the school community,” the position statement says.