Protecting Transgender Students

by Sean Philpott-Jones, Director of the Center for Bioethics and Clinical Leadership

Two nights ago, the Shenendehowa Board of Education voted 4 to 2 in favor of a new policy designed to protect the rights and safety of transgender students. High school students in the district will now be allowed to use bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their gender identity. The new policy also allows all students, regardless of sex or gender, to access single-user bathrooms and private changing areas.

Located just north of Albany, New York, Shenendehowa Central School District is now one of but a few districts nationwide that provide recognition and support to transgendered youth. Only California has passed a statewide law that allows transgender students to use bathroom and locker facilities that match their gender identities. While the New York City Board of Education released new guidelines in support of transgender students earlier this year – including a recommendation that students never be made to use a locker room or restroom that conflicts with their gender identity – these are only suggestions and not binding policies. Sadly, the New York State Board of Education has been largely silent on this issue.

The US Federal government has also been relatively quiet on the topic of transgendered youth. The US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has stated that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which protects students from sex discrimination, also applies to transgender students. This allows transgendered students to file legal action in federal court should local authorities fail to protect them from discrimination and violence while at school. But the US Department of Education failed to provide specific examples of Title IX-prohibited discrimination or provide school districts with clear guidance on how to create trans-inclusive policies. Finally, the Obama Administration has been reluctant to push Congress to pass legislation that will protect transgendered youth, such as the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Non-Discrimination Act.

Such laws and policies are desperately needed. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) youth are at increased risk of bullying, physical violence and sexual assault at school. In 2011, for instance, a survey conducted by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) found more than half of LGBT youth report being harassed at school. For transgendered students in particular, however, the problem is much much worse.

The National Transgender Discrimination Survey, a study of over 6,000 people, found that transgender and gender-nonconforming students experienced very high rates of harassment (78 percent), physical violence (35 percent) and sexual assault (12 percent). Alarmingly, a third of this harassment and violence occurred at the hands of teachers, staff and school officials themselves. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that many transgendered students drop out of school. Still more report having suicidal thoughts, and a quarter have attempted to take their own lives.

This is a tragedy of considerable proportion, one that can only be addressed by implementing and enforcing policies that prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity. That is what makes the recent vote by the Shenendehowa Board of Education so groundbreaking. But it is also what makes the acrimonious nature of the debate over this policy so disheartening.

When local news stations posted the story on their websites and Facebook pages, for example, a majority of the comments submitted online were in opposition to Shenendehowa’s new policy. Many people posted comments that made it clear that they did not understand the new policy. Others made rude statements that were based on ill-informed stereotypes of transgendered kids: that they are confused, that they need to see psychiatrists, that they should use the staff bathrooms, or that they are sexual predators who are only interested in seeing other children naked.

I’m chalking up most of the opposition to fear, ignorance and campaigns that falsely claim that students and staff will exploit these policies to use opposite-sex restrooms in order to sexually harass and assault other children. When California’s legislature was debating the School Success and Opportunity Act, which gave transgender students the same rights and protections covered by Shenendehowa’s new policy, the conservative Pacific Justice Institute invented a now discredited story about a transgender student harassing her peers in a Colorado school restroom. Similarly, when the town of Fayetteville, Arkansas was considering a law that prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity, reality TV star Michelle Duggar falsely claimed that the law would allow men “with past child predator convictions to claim they are female [and] use womens’ and girls’ restrooms, locker rooms and showers.“

Nothing could be further from the truth. Consider what is happening in California. In the year since they passed the School Success and Opportunity Act, not a single school district in that state has reported an instance of inappropriate behavior, harassment or physical assault stemming from the new law. The experience of the Shenendehowa Central School District is likely to be the same.

Kudos to the Shenendehowa Board of Education for standing up for the rights of transgendered kids. Now if the rest of the school districts in the US could do the same.

[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on December 4, 2014, and is available on the WAMC website. The contents of this post are solely the responsibility of the author alone and do not represent the views of the Bioethics Program or Union Graduate College.]

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