Why Are Public Schools Resisting the Need for Policies to Support Transgender Students?

Given the rising number of discussions about bullying and how to fight it in schools, it’s particularly shameful that the people at fault for the bullying of transgender students in elementary school are often adults.

Sep 26, 2012 at 2:00pm | Leave a comment

School districts are struggling when it comes to dealing with transgender students, thanks to the fact that more and more people are aware of this issue, and not all of them are handling the subject with grace. This has been highlighted by a recent case in the Nashua school district, where a third grade girl was forced to change schools, but the district apparently didn’t feel that a specific overall policy for handling trans students was necessary.

Whenever a trans student changes schools, I always want to know why, because the reasons can vary. Some students and their families actually opt for a transfer because they want to start with a clean slate, rather than being known as “the transgender people.” In that situation, they may meet with school officials and teachers beforehand to make sure the student’s gender is respected and to keep the process as seamless as possible.

In this instance, though, she transferred because she was being discriminated against, and disgustingly, the school at first resisted her transfer request. It wasn’t until an attorney from Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders got involved that they grudgingly allowed her to transfer to a new school where she (hopefully) wouldn’t experience discrimination.

At her new school, she’s treated as who she is: a girl.

Cases where trans students are forced to change schools or districts are not at all uncommon, and they can come with hefty discrimination suits sometimes. Students may be bullied out of school by their classmates, but more commonly, it’s adults that are the problem. Especially on the elementary school level, most kids actually adapt very well to trans students; they haven’t had decades of socialization teaching them to hate and fear transgender people, and accept their classmates for who they are. Kids are a lot more open-minded than most people give them credit for. 

Adults, meanwhile, swing into bathroom panic, arguing that having a “boy” using the girl’s room would result in chaos, or that other students will become confused. Some seem to think that being transgender is catching, and that allowing a trans student to transition will poison the rest of the school with The Trans. Surely, everyone will be wanting all the attention and discrimination once they see how fun it is for a classmate!

Classic case in point here:

When the child returned to second grade that January dressed as a girl, using a female name, she was initially accepted by her teacher and classmates and was allowed to use the same restrooms as the other girls in class, her mother said.

She was totally accepted by the people actually on the ground with her in the school, because they saw her as who she was. A girl. Who needed the support and friendship of the people around her.

But...

...when a classmate’s parent complained about the girl using female restrooms and staff continued addressing her as male, her daughter’s mood darkened and behavioral issues increased, her mother said...The child was ultimately separated from her classmates, seated in a single desk in a room of shared tables and was no longer allowed to use the girls restroom, her mother said.

For being transgender and being supported by her parents, family, and initially by school officials as well, she was punished.

And yet the district claims it doesn’t need a policy for handling transgender students. Clearly, it does, because when a transitioning student returns to class, that student should receive respect and support. Furthermore, the student’s gender history should be confidential, which means that it shouldn’t be a topic of discussion unless the student chooses to disclose. If people find out and choose to complain about it, they need some firm education to explain that transgender students have a right to receive respect and an education. In a small town or district, it's going to be inevitable that at least some people will know a student is trans, so districts need to plan ahead rather than reactively responding to bigoted parents. 

Given the rising number of discussions about bullying and how to fight it in schools, it’s particularly shameful that the people at fault for the bullying of transgender students in elementary school are often adults. Their kneejerk hateful reactions are primarily the result of ignorance, but it doesn’t make them any less hurtful, and when their hatred is accommodated, it sends a clear message not only to other adults but to other students; and those students who aren’t bigoted, but merely curious and intrigued, learn to hate and fear their classmates. As they grow older, that in turn is going to turn into bullying when those students enter middle and high school, perpetuating the cycle.

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We're supposed to be the adults here, y'all.

Schools need to be ready for this, because the number of transgender students is likely to increase in coming years. In the past, the response to genderfluid and transgender children was usually to attempt to suppress their emotions and psychological turmoil, but today, those children are more likely to get evaluations and support as they and their families decide how to proceed. Which means that they’re going to be encountering school districts, and those schools need policies in place for smoothly accommodating trans children.

I’m glad this anonymous student was able to transfer to a school that was safer for her, but I know she’s not the only one in this position, and that’s something that needs to change. Many districts, especially in rural areas with low populations, are flailing when it comes to handling trans students, which is entirely understandable; it’s something they haven’t dealt with before and many officials have a limited understanding of trans issues. It’s time to change that with more outreach and education, and models from progressive school districts that can be adopted by others to create a cohesive national policy for ensuring that transgender students of all ages are safe in school.