For seven years, I was the associate principal of Ashland Middle School (AMS) in Ashland, OR. With a population of 25,000, Ashland is a city in the southwest corner of the state, just over the border from California. Home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Southern Oregon University, Ashland has a small-town feel and a progressive community. Yet despite the area’s general commitment to social equality, transgender and non-binary students didn’t always feel comfortable being themselves in school. Going into my second year at AMS in 2017, I was starting to better understand their needs and how we could meet them.
At the time, our district did not have a gender identity policy. Governor Kate Brown had only recently released “Guidance to School Districts: Creating a Safe and Supportive School Environment for Transgender Students.” So, resources and a greater awareness were just starting to emerge.
A few students in our school had started coming to staff members with whom they had a connection and felt comfortable talking and sharing preferred names or pronouns. Staff members were unsure of what to do with that information. Teachers and education assistants were asking me how they should respond and whether a student who identified as a gender different from their biological sex could, for example, use the other bathroom or go by a preferred name at school.
While I did not yet fully understand how best to respond to our students’ needs, I knew that we wanted to create an environment where all students felt comfortable and supported. I had taught at AMS since 2012, and we had worked steadily to reduce incidents of bullying and promote a positive school climate. Learning how to better support our transgender students was a natural next step.
In the spring of 2016, I was contacted by a family whose child was transgender and would enroll in sixth grade at AMS the following school year. She had transitioned to female in fourth grade, and while her elementary school teachers and administrators had been supportive, there was no documentation in place to support her as she moved to middle school.
Recognizing my role in ensuring “an educational environment safe and free from discrimination and harassment,” per the Governor’s “Guidance to School Districts” from May 2016, I worked with the family to create the “AMS Personal Education and Support Plan: Gender Identity,” that was later adopted by the district as a PEP: Gender Identity Plan. As the plan’s introduction makes clear, the document’s purpose “is to create shared understandings among school staff, caregivers, parents, and the student about the ways in which the student’s authentic gender will be accounted for and supported at school.”
To develop this plan, I leaned on advice from Jenn Burleton, the founder and executive director of the TransActive Gender Project in Portland, an organization that advocates for transgender youth and their families. I also used the “Examples of Policies and Emerging Practices for Supporting Transgender Students,” from the U.S. Department of Education, as well as input from the student’s parents and the student’s pediatrician.
To prepare our staff, I made sure to lead a training during our August in-service, introducing them to the new “AMS Personal Education and Support Plan: Gender Identity.” Including both certified teaching staff and classified education assistants was important so that everyone on campus understood the components of the plan. To protect the student’s privacy, I did not share her name. Part of the PEP requires we be intentional about who on campus is made aware of a student’s gender identity. As is stated in the plan, “Information about [Preferred Name]’s transgender status, legal name, or assigned sex at birth is CONFIDENTIAL. It is never appropriate for any school staff to talk about pronoun gender identity or transition to any other persons (including parents and students).” It was important to help staff understand that part of making a student feel comfortable is ensuring that their privacy will be respected.
Last school year, 31 out of about 500 students were supported with some level of a Gender Identity Plan, which is about 6% of our student body. Some parents are not as comfortable or supportive when a student starts talking about their gender identity, and students are acutely aware of how their families are likely to respond to this information. When a student seeks out support at AMS, the goal is to bring parents in while being sensitive to the needs of the student as they navigate how and when to include their parents in the conversation. For guidance on how to accomplish this goal, we have used “Transgender Students in Schools,” published by the National School Boards Association, and “Schools in Transition: A Guide for Supporting Transgender Students in K–12 Schools,” produced by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Gender Spectrum, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the National Education Association.
“In supporting students in this process, it is important to honor where they are in terms of sharing this information with their family,” says Allison Hass, the student support specialist at AMS. “Sometimes students have shared their authentic gender identity with their family and sometimes they have not shared that information yet. In situations in which a student’s family does not know about the student’s gender identity, it is important that we hold space for the student to safely move through their process at their own pace.”
Hass is often the staff member helping the student through this process. Once the student feels comfortable sharing with their families, providing families with support networks, referrals, and literature is a helpful next step. “A Guide to Being an Ally to Transgender and Nonbinary Youth,” by the Trevor Project, is a highly accessible educational resource that we recommend to families as they navigate how to support their child.
Partnering with families is an important piece in supporting transgender students at school. Every student travels their own path of self-discovery and identity formation and, whenever possible, having the opportunity to partner with the student and their family can be a meaningful opportunity in honoring the student’s authentic gender identity.
Affirming Gender Identity at School
There are a number of ways that a school community can help transgender students feel supported on campus, including through the language that is used, the images that are displayed, access to gender neutral bathrooms, and ongoing care.
- Dress Code Posters
One way that AMS has adapted and strengthened a commitment to supporting all students, including gender non-binary students, is to modify dress code guidance by removing all gender specific language or images. Instead of outlining expectations for girls or boys, we have developed guidance that works for everyone, regardless of gender, including expectation #3 “Cover that bod! From your Armpit Equator to your thighs.”
- Gender-Affirming Language
One small but meaningful way for a school to increase support of LGBTQ+ students is to practice using inclusive language. Simply put, this is language that includes all people of all genders. For example, instead of using terms such as “you guys” or “boys and girls,” educators can be mindful of using terms such as “you all” or “everyone” or “everybody” when addressing a class or group of students.
- Visual Environment
In 2018, I facilitated an activity with staff called the “Environmental Scan.” Teachers were given a worksheet that asked questions about the messages that were being communicated based on the art, signs, and posters presented throughout the school. The scan asked, “To what degree is the diversity of the area, and the world, represented? Are these differences reflected and honored in a positive and equitable way? What are the explicit messages about difference that are being conveyed? What messages are missing? What is being communicated by the omission? Who is being overlooked?
This schoolwide inventory allowed staff members to see their classroom, and each other’s classrooms, and the common spaces throughout the school through a new lens. The effect was powerful: We realized the images didn’t represent the value we held about diversity. After recognizing that our physical space lacked images of people of color, women, and messages of inclusion, teachers were more motivated to intentionally post diverse images. We then provided teachers with high-quality posters of images that they requested, as well as artwork that communicated two very specific messages: This is a safe space for queer and transgender people, and all are welcome here.
Special education teacher Rosie Russell explains, “Leadership from administration and encouragement to hang Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion posters, including images representing the LGBTQIA+ population, helped the staff be bold in our support of these kids.”
Questions about bathrooms and locker rooms commonly arise from staff and parents when they are trying to understand how supporting transgender students might impact the school community. Typically, schools have gender-specific restrooms. Some people are concerned that in making transgender people feel comfortable, it will be difficult to maintain the comfort of cisgender community members. At AMS, any transgender or cisgender student can use single-person, nongender options, even when it means allowing students to use the staff bathroom in the office. Most of the time people just need to understand that there is a solution for what they anticipate will be a problem. When we announced this approach, the administration worked with individual families by sitting down with them, listening to their concerns, providing them with options, and assuring them that we were committed to ensuring that every student on campus had a bathroom they felt comfortable using.
In AMS’s remodeled campus, restrooms have been added to provide more single-person, nongender options and with a design that improves supervision. It provides a “wash closet” style, where students—regardless of their gender—can use a single-person bathroom in private and then wash their hands in an open sink area that is visible to the rest of the hallway (see image above). The intention behind this design is to provide more options that don’t require special permission for subgroups of students.
- Check-Ins With Students
AMS staff members recognize that all students benefit from caring adults as they navigate the middle school experience. “We understand that a middle school student is in the process of forming and understanding their identity, in general, and a part of one’s identity is their gender and sexual orientation,” says language arts teacher Austin Wallace. “Having this understanding as a foundation is key to supporting students. We understand that educators guide all students during this process to develop pro-social skills, organization skills, academic skills, or simply by affirming their identity.”
As Kai Williams, a ninth grader who attended AMS last year, explains, gender identity can be fluid. “Our identities might not stay the same forever,” he says. “One month we might identify as a man, but the next we might identify as non-binary. As we grow and change, our identities do too, so it’s important to check up on trans students and be flexible.” To that end, Hass, the student support specialist, and the mental health counselors at AMS regularly check-in with transgender students, particularly those who are currently in the process of exploring their gender.
- Affinity Groups and Student Unions
Given that affinity groups offer supports for students, in the last five years, AMS has directed resources into establishing clubs and student unions. A Black Student Union, an Asian Student Union, a Latino Student Union, a Native Student Union, and a Queer Straight Alliance provide students with networks to share their lived experiences with peers. Recognizing our students of color and our LGBTQ+ community, and giving them a voice, has impacted awareness and respect for different cultures and student groups on campus.
Some staff say they want to support students but feel overwhelmed initially by the thought of learning a student’s pronouns or using a different name mid-year. Recognizing that this can cause stress for some teachers is important, as is giving them support.
One of the practical ways that AMS helps educators is by adjusting names in our student information system to reflect a student’s preferred name. “It’s a small detail but makes all the difference in helping teachers support their students,” says Russell. “This type of clerical adjustment is easy and should be embraced by any district hoping to support their LGBTQIA+ population in a tangible way.”
Teachers know that if they need help navigating a situation, they can talk openly with school leaders and the student support specialist who will listen to their concerns. Sometimes, the support that is needed has to do with a simple clarification or logistics. Other times, staff members need to process their own thoughts and feelings about gender-affirming care.
Response of the Larger School Community
How do we know that our efforts to make AMS a comfortable, inclusive environment are working? The behaviors of students who do not identify as queer or transgender show that a culture of inclusion is widespread.
“Because of the support and spaces AMS has for LGBTQ+ students, I’ve heard so many positive things from other students who otherwise might not know much about the LGBTQ+ community firsthand,” Wallace says. “For example, I’ve heard many students ask others about their pronouns, or if they’re using the correct pronouns when talking to an LGBTQ+ student. I hear white male cisgender religious students being conscious of pronouns in a way that shows they have no bias toward LGBTQ+ students, that they want to understand and act with respect, and I believe this is at least in part because of the vocal and open position AMS has taken to create spaces for LGBTQ+ students and to show them unwavering allegiance.”
Williams can attest to this inclusive environment, recalling a time when he felt supported by another student at AMS. “This guy in the boys’ bathroom started talking to me and asked, ‘Wait, are you a girl?’ and I got kind of scared and said, ‘Biologically yes, mentally no.’
“Then he said, ‘So, you’re a guy?’ and I said yes. And he just went, ‘Okay! Nice to meet you, dude!’ and left. It was awesome.”
Katherine Holden is the principal of Talent Middle School in Talent, OR, and the 2022 NASSP Assistant Principal of the Year. Previously, she was the associate principal of Ashland Middle School in Ashland, OR.