Policies and protections: Trans students need to feel safe

By Scott Rothschild 

srothschild@kasb.org 

When Adam was a high school student, he had a teacher who always called him `Miss and then his last name. 

“I ended up transferring out of his class and not taking AP English,” said Adam, who is now a junior English major at the University of Kansas. Adam said he thought the high school teacher was purposely not recognizing his gender identity. 

Kansas public schools were the first in the nation to approve social and emotional learning standards for students, but when it comes to what are often called the most vulnerable students — those who are transitioning from one gender to another — the results have been mixed. 

Some Kansas school districts have non-discrimination policies that include gender identity as a protected class but most do not. There may be momentum building to consider non-discrimination policies at schools since the decision in June by the U.S. Supreme Court that says businesses cannot discriminate against someone because they are LGBT. The question arises, should the same protections apply to students as well?  

Transgender and gender non-conforming students often experience hostile climates at school. 

Eighty-four percent of transgender students report having been bullied and harassed at school; 42 percent say they are prevented from using their preferred pronoun; 47 percent had been required to use the bathroom they didn’t want to use, and 50 percent had at least one suicide attempt before the age of 20. Those levels were found in a 2017 survey by GLSEN, which is a group founded by educators that works to create safe and affirming learning environments for LGBTQ youth.   

Dr. Peg McCarthy, a clinical psychologist and former Topeka USD 501 school board member, says every district should have a non-discrimination policy to protect transgender students and staff and act against those who violate the policy.  

“If you do not have a formal policy and regulation, then it is wholly dependent on the individuals in their positions. Some of them (individuals) are great, and some are not at all,” McCarthy said. 

All schools — at least in theory — strive to nurture a school climate in which students, families, teachers, and staff foster a sense of safety for all students.  

For Cameron, most of his difficulties in transitioning occurred while a student in private school where he would wear the boys’ uniform instead of the girls’ uniform.  

“I wore the standard boy uniform. I got in trouble with it a lot. I didn’t wear the skirts or anything; it raised a couple of red flags with some of my teachers,” he said.  

Cameron then chose public school and came out as a freshman. Most teachers at the public school “were really great,” he said, but one didn’t want him in her class, so she transferred him to another. She later ended up leaving the district, he said.  

Cameron said the best advice he could give teachers is “listen to your students.”  

He added, “talk with them, communicate with them — I would like to be called this name and these pronouns and do your best to respect that. Everybody makes mistakes some time, but they (students) need you right now. Other kids are going to look up to the teacher and you need to be setting a good example.” said Cameron who graduated high school in 2018 and has been attending Emporia State University. 

McCarthy, who works with transgender adolescents throughout northeast Kansas, said non-discrimination policies for gay and transgender students would help districts, large and small. Gender questioning students are about five percent of the population and transgender students, probably one percent to two percent.  

“When you assert a strong position that is pro student, in general, families are good with that if they trust you as leaders,” she said. 

Adam said teachers, even if they don’t understand the issues surrounding young people who are transitioning, need to be empathetic to transgender students who in many cases are having difficult times, not only at school but at home. 

“It’s really important to listen to them and believe them when they tell you things,” Adam said. “It can be the difference, honestly, between life and death.” 

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