The Case for Transgender-Affirming School Policies
What schools and parents need to know
Posted Oct 21, 2015
I have just been invited by a school district to come and speak at a parent meeting on the topic of transgender-affirming school policies. Some parents in this district are upset about the inclusive practices being introduced in the district since they passed new guidelines a few years ago. I am sharing my prepared remarks here in the hopes that they may be useful to other communities who are working through the tensions these topics raise in schools.
School policies are introduced and implemented for two overarching reasons I like to call the “carrot” and the “stick”—policies designed to provide supports for transgender and gender nonconforming students fall into both categories which I explain below.
The proverbial carrot is meant to describe motivations for change based on anticipated positive outcomes; ie motivating an animal pulling a cart to move by dangling a carrot in front of its mouth. In the case of school districts working to be explicit in how they support transgender and gender nonconforming students, the motivations are often to ensure that all students have access to a safe and inclusive learning environment where their needs would be met.
In order to be successful at school, we know that students need to feel safe, respected, connected to adults, and have a sense of belonging to a school community. Public schools serve diverse students and families which is why they offer Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for students with disabilities, language support classes for emerging bilingual students, and college counseling and mentoring programs for first-generation students who are college-bound. We need to provide different supports to different students based on their unique needs, the in order to help students achieve and develop into healthy adults prepared for their future. This is the definition of educational equity.
Implementing such policies is the right thing to do as they ensure that accommodation plans are in place to provide a safe and inclusive learning environment for transgender and gender nonconforming youth. The research tells us that schools are a particularly dangerous and hostile place for transgender youth. In a 2014 study of students in grades 7-12 in California schools, transgender youth were:
- 10 times more likely to miss school because they didn’t feel safe (23.2% vs. 1.9% non trans students)
- 6 times more likely to report feeling unsafe or very unsafe at school (39% vs. 6.3%)
- 6 times more likely to report being pushed, shoved, slapped, hit or kicked by someone (37% vs. 6%)
- 3 times more likely to experience sexual harassment at school (46% vs. 16%)
Most schools do not have such clearly established policies and as a result, many transgender youth are not safe at school and internalize many of the surrounding negative messages they receive about themselves. In order to better serve all youth in our schools we need to establish practices that allow all students to fully engage in the life of the school and prepare them for the actual diversity that exists in our communities. These policies aim to accomplish this important goal.
“The stick” refers to the threat of punishment for failing to move forward or take action. In the case of this policy, there is a very large legal stick called Title IX. The Federal Office for Civil Rights issued legal guidance that impacts all educational institutions receiving federal funds. These documents clearly state that discrimination on the basis of one’s gender identity or expression falls under this statute. This means that school districts risk losing federal funding or falling under restrictive, lengthy, settlement agreements that impose new policy frameworks, professional development, and regular federal reporting if they fail to prevent discrimination on the basis of sex. There have already been several cases of school districts across the country being held accountable for such Title IX violations towards transgender and gender nonconforming youth (Student v. Arcadia Unified School District, 2011; Walsh v. Tehachapi, 2011).
The model policy guidelines such as those provided by GLSEN provide templates and best practices for school communities to adopt to ensure that students are not being discriminated against and can fully participate in all aspects of their educational experience.