Valley schools applaud transgender student directives

Last modified: Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Area students, educators and activists are applauding new state guidelines on the treatment of transgender students as a needed step in creating safer, more supportive public schools.

They say the guidelines will help raise awareness about issues that are still uncharted territory for many school districts.

“A lot of people still don’t know that sex is different from gender,” said Madelyn Freitag of Haydenville, a sophomore at Hampshire Regional High School and a member of the school’s gay straight alliance. “It’s still really uncomfortable for a lot of people.”

The directives, aimed at helping schools follow the state’s 2011 law outlawing discrimination based on gender identity, say schools should respond to the identity students choose for themselves, regardless of their birth sex. That includes their use of names, choice of bathrooms and sports teams.

Created by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and issued last month, the guidelines offer case studies of how schools have supported students who don’t conform to traditional gender roles. They encourage schools to see the new law as an opportunity to change outmoded sex-segregated policies, such as having boys and girls wear different colored graduation gowns.

“We’re thrilled with the clarity of this,” said Marta Guevara, director of student achievement and student services administrator for the Amherst Regional Public Schools. “It removes some of the hoops that students have to go through” to find support.

“This is one more step,” said Leslie Giordano, school psychologist at Hampshire Regional High School who has been an adviser to her school’s gay straight alliance for nearly two decades. “We have a piece of paper that says this is what we need to do.”

The state does not collect data on the number of transgender students in Massachusetts. And, as the guidelines make clear, that umbrella term covers a broad spectrum of young people whose appearance, behavior and sense of identity differs from their assigned gender.

School officials in Northampton and Amherst say they’ve worked with a handful of students who have identified themselves as transgender or gender questioning in recent years — including in the elementary grades. The fact that some transgender and gender nonconforming students are not open about their identities makes it hard to determine how many such students are attending public schools, administrators say.

One thing that is known is that transgender students are at high risk of being bullied or abused by their peers. The guidelines cite a 2011 school climate survey by the national Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network that found three-quarters of transgender students surveyed had been verbally harassed in the previous year, nearly a third had been physically harassed and 16.8 percent had been physically assaulted.

Gay rights activists applaud the action taken by the DOE.

“Transgender people are a minority even within our community,” said Suzanne J. Seymour, executive director of the LGBT Coalition of Western Massachusetts. “The guidelines are bound to be controversial because there’s a lot of misunderstanding about transgender people. But they give people a way to start the conversation. And any conversation that leads to open hearts is good.”

Gender stereotyping

Jennifer Bryan, a psychologist with Team Finch Consultants in Northampton, pointed out that while schools have created anti-bullying programs in recent years, few have specifically addressed the sex-role stereotyping that can make transgender students targets for mistreatment.

“We don’t want kids to be bullied, but at the same time we don’t want these gender issues addressed,” said Bryan, an author and consultant who has provided training to area public schools on transgender issues. “You can’t have it both ways.”

She maintains that a lack of understanding among school staff about what it means to be transgender takes a toll on students and their families.

“Sometimes they end up changing school districts because it’s just so hard,” Bryan said. “You want to come into a district that knows something about this. The more it can be spelled out, the better.”

Massachusetts’ new guidelines, developed after reviewing policies in several other states, as well as federal anti-workplace discrimination laws, try to do just that.

The document provides information about the terminology of gender identity and the process of transition, where a young person goes from identifying as one gender to living as another. (See related story.)

The guidelines emphasize that the responsibility for determining a student’s gender identity rests with the student, or in the case of very young students, with parents or guardians.

“There is no threshold medical or mental health diagnosis or treatment requirement that any student must meet in order to have his or her gender identity recognized and respected by a school,” the guidelines state.

The education department recommends that schools take steps to update student records and protect student privacy in cases where their chosen names and gender identities differ from those they were given at birth.

For example, the guidelines cite the case of a transgender high school girl whose records indicated her name was John, but who had begun using the name Jane and female pronouns.

The school principal sent a memo to her teachers, asking them to use the name the student had chosen and to ask classmates to do the same because “continued, repeated and intentional misuse of names and pronouns may erode the educational environment for Jane.”

For transgender students, language is important as a sign of emerging identity, said Susan Tippett, a student assistance counselor at Amherst Regional Middle School and an adviser to her school’s LBGTQ and Friends club.

“Students are in different places about this,” said Tippett, who has worked with a number of transgender students and their families over the years. “We have students who want to change to a gender-neutral name and then six months later, want to shift the pronoun. It’s a process.”

The Amherst middle school’s LGBT group recently added Q to its official name to better represent gender-questioning or “queer” members, Tippett said.

Jace Hill, a Northampton High School junior and president of the school’s gay straight alliance, said it can be painful when teachers call out the wrong name in class.

“I see that more often with substitute teachers,” said Hill, who identifies as gender fluid. “They see the name on the roster and they can’t believe that’s who it goes to.”

Restrooms, locker rooms

The state guidelines also address the issue of school bathrooms and locker rooms, which experts say can be especially challenging for transgender students.

The directives say students who are uncomfortable using a sex-segregated restroom or changing facility should be provided with an alternative, such as the single, unisex restrooms used by school staff or frequently found in the school nurse’s office.

That’s the solution used in Northampton and Amherst schools and at Hampshire Regional High School, according to administrators.

While it’s important to have gender-neutral bathrooms, sometimes the way schools arrange for them can be problematic, said Patricia Jenkins, a licensed clinical social worker in Northampton who has been working with transgender teens and adults for 20 years.

“Having a kid sequestered to using a bathroom in the nurse’s office can still make them feel like a weirdo,” she said. “And these kids already feel like their skin is on backwards. I think it’s important to have more gender-neutral bathrooms that anybody can use.”

Hill, the Northampton High School student, said the two gender-neutral bathrooms available at NHS are also coincidentally ones marked “handicapped.” Hill said administrators have been supportive of suggestions for changing the signs on those restrooms.

The state guidelines acknowledge that some students may not feel comfortable sharing a restroom or locker room with a transgender student, but that is “not a reason to deny access to the transgender student.”

That stance has already sparked criticism from the Massachusetts Family Institute, which argues that allowing transgender boys to use girls bathrooms or vice versa endangers other students and violates their privacy, according to the Associated Press.

Jeff Sealander, director of athletics for Easthampton High School, said a new high school building that will be completed next month will provide more options for offering gender-neutral changing areas because it will have twice as many locker rooms as the existing high school.

“Times change and expectations change and we have to adjust to them,” he said. “Moving into the new building will make it easier for us to follow the state guidelines.”

As for playing sports, the new directives state that students must be allowed to participate in athletics “in a manner consistent with their gender identity.”

The state Interscholastic Athletic Association will use the gender identity used by a student’s district, the document says, and will “not make separate gender identity determinations.”

Teacher training

When Beth Choquette, principal of Bridge Street School in Northampton, learned last fall that a student at the school was in gender transition, she worried about everything that could go wrong.

But Choquette said the change has been smooth and uneventful, thanks partly to the community’s experience with transgender students, but also to information sessions that Bryan, the psychologist, provided to teachers and school staff.

“I had a lot of school staff thank me for offering that,” Choquette said. “Oftentimes we tend to throw things at staff before we really prepare them.”

The new state guidelines recommend that schools incorporate more education and training about transgender students into staff professional development, anti-bullying curriculum and student leadership training.

Students applaud that recommendation.

“It’s not that people at my school are not accepting about gender issues, they’re just not that aware,” said Devon Topor, a senior at Hampshire Regional who has been a member of her school’s gay straight alliance since ninth grade. “At our school, it’s just not brought up. It’s just ignored.”

Fellow alliance member Marissa Delisle, a sophomore, said education is also needed to help address “big, gaping stereotypes” in the media about transgender people that can make young people feel marginalized.

Guevera, the Amherst Regional administrator, said families also need more information about gender identity.

“We are such a diverse community and these issues are dealt with differently around the world,” she said. “Teaching acceptance and tolerance is something we can do.”

It’s not just transgender students who will benefit from that kind of approach, said Bryan, who has written a book about her work with schools.

“Gender and sexual diversity are big issues for everybody,” she said. “You don’t have to be a gender nonconforming kid to be affected by an environment that’s not accepting.”


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