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Editorial: Keeping everyone safe is mission in new state rules on transgendered students

Last month, the state Department of Education quietly released guidelines to make the lives of some public school students easier and their school environment safer and more hospitable to learning. These guidelines follow up on An Act Relative to Gender Identity, Chapter 199 of the Acts of 2011, which amended anti-discrimination statutes to include gender identity.

This act went into effect July 1, 2012. Last month, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education issued 11 pages of guidelines. These are meant to help schools comply with the law every day in their classrooms, gymnasiums and sports fields.

It’s good the state took this step because changing an institution’s practices and procedures takes time. Influencing a school culture, equally important, can take longer. The steps schools must take cover record-keeping, teacher training, use of pronouns and responding to students’ decisions to change their names, accommodations in restrooms and locker rooms, privacy and confidentiality, physical education classes, intramural sports and varsity-level athletics.

The guidelines encourage flexibility and common sense, but require administrators, staff and teachers to foster a culture that allows trans­gender students, as well as gender-nonconforming students, to feel safe, supported and included in all aspects of the school community.

Flexibility is key because what might be an acceptable solution for one student could be a hardship for another. For example, while schools are instructed to allow a transgender student to use the bathroom that corresponds to the gender he or she identifies with, some transgender students may prefer to use a gender-neutral bathroom, or one, say, in the nurse’s office.

Schools must speak with students and their families and be sensitive to their needs and circumstances.

Why are these steps crucial? Misunderstanding, misinformation and just plain ignorance about what it means to be transgender are rampant in our society. Transgender students are at high risk for bullying and being ostracized. They might leave school, act out or become suicidal.

It is essential that administrators and teachers get the training they need to meet student needs with compassion and a full understanding of the stakes, which are high.

The guidelines are thought-provoking. They ask schools to rethink their use of gender-based rules and practices that may be old-fashioned, arbitrary or unnecessary — practices that perhaps should be thrown out for everyone’s benefit.

For example, there is no sound educational reason why students in the elementary grades need to be told to line up with girls in one line and boys in the other. There is no sound reason why graduating seniors need to be assigned colors to wear based on gender.

At least one local high school has graduating seniors choose from among six colors for caps and gowns. The result is a colorful mix of that honors choice and diversity regardless of gender.

Athletic directors across the state must grapple with this new law sooner rather than later. The law states that when it comes to sex-segregated teams, transgender students must be allowed to participate on the team that corresponds to their gender identity. The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association will rely on the school district to make the gender determination, so this is a matter that must be dealt with at the local level.

Few students fall into this category, but when they do, school districts must make them and their teammates feel supported and safe.

The state guidelines compel schools to come up with plans to be accommodating and welcoming to transgender students, ideally before the need arises.

And this, too, is good news because it is better to have a plan before it is needed than to be forced to develop one on the fly, when a student’s quality of life hangs in the balance.

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