This fall I had the opportunity to speak with international schools in the Middle East about risk management. In the session, I shared data about transgender students and some of their vulnerabilities as well as how schools can work with these students and their families. During the conversation, one head of school raised his hand and said, “It is illegal to be transgender in my host country.”
As I asked the head more questions, I learned that not only was it illegal for a student to be transgender, but it was a problem for the school to undertake basic supportive steps, such as creating a gender-neutral bathroom. Doing so would facilitate the illegality.
This is obviously not the law in many countries, but this exchange highlighted for me the special privilege our American independent schools have to help support transgender students and other school community members. I recognize this work is not easy for schools.
The evolution of open gender expression that aligns with how an individual truly identifies creates special challenges for traditional institutions like schools, even those that are considered progressive in their niche. The full range of gender identification, including transgender (a person’s identity varies from their assigned sex), non-binary (a person who does not fully identify with either male or female), and gender fluid (a person’s identity may change regularly between genders and is not tied to their assigned sex) can be bewildering to schools. Communities committed to openly working with these students need to examine the school’s traditions, cultural signifiers, and openness to diversity in a new way.
A New Urgency
After the U.S. Department of Education mandated support of transgender students in schools required to comply with Title IX, the debate has raged on across the country about how to proceed. Just last week the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear a case of transgender student rights in public schools. Amid the confusion and controversy, it can be easy to forget that openly discussing these issues and making space for all students are still privileges in this world.
Our schools have not been exempt from these challenges. In my role as one of the touchpoints for school questions at NAIS, I have had much contact with schools facing the challenges of working with these students. These calls have escalated dramatically in the last four years. In 2012, I spoke with about four schools about this issue. In 2016, I have occasionally spoken with four schools in one week. This trend is not anecdotal. While precise data about the number of transgender students is not readily available, particularly in the United States, it’s estimated that about 1 to 1.5 percent of the population identifies as transgender.
Schools’ Most Frequently Asked Questions
1. What do we have to do?
Schools do want to work with transgender students and their families, but the first question is often about what compliance requirements are out there. Unless your school takes federal financial assistance, there is no federal mandate that requires you to work with and accommodate transgender students.
That being said, the Department of Education’s Title IX guidance gives schools a good starting point for basic elements to meet when it comes to working with students and families. States and localities have been developing different regulations, often quite quickly. Schools should know the state and local requirements, and how they may apply to their schools.
2. What if the student doesn’t want his or her parents to know?
This is a particularly complex circumstance. In some cases, a student comes forward to the school counselor or other supporting adults in the school to discuss starting to transition, but does not yet want to talk with their parents. Ideally, the school’s counselor works with the student to get on the same page with their parents, particularly before names change and the open use of pronouns begins to shift.
The family support system for students in transition is extremely important. The likelihood of a parent in a day school community not finding out a child is transitioning is incredibly small once the student is openly taking steps to transition. Working with parents should generally not involve surprises and this situation is no exception. Yet balancing desire for open communication with parents with the need to support the student during this time is difficult. Schools need to develop their own policies based on their school communities. The resolution may vary by student, taking into account a student’s individual needs and family circumstances.
3. What if a student doesn’t want anyone else to know?
This is really OK. If the student begins talking to a trusted adult in the school, ideally the student ultimately speaks with the school counselor who helps the student talk with their parents and perhaps receive support outside the school.
That being said, identifying as transgender is not a mental illness, and the student may not want outside counseling support. While students often have a degree of comfort with being in transition, this time can be harder for adults. The student may not be ready for name changes, bathroom changes, locker room changes, team changes, etc., and the adults need to give students time to get to the place where they are comfortable taking these steps. Working with the student and family to create a transition plan for the student can help identify what will be most helpful to the student and provide a flexible road map for the steps to come.
In some cases, students may opt out of events that involve gender specific cultural signifiers, such as graduation, school traditions, etc., because they do not feel comfortable participating at this point in their transition. Schools need to work with students to ensure that they feel supported and comfortable with their decisions. They also need to ensure students are not pushed to participate or take steps for which they are not prepared. This is not a problem to fix, but a journey to support.
4. How do we let people know?
This answer depends on where the student is in his or her transition when at your school, what is healthy for the student, what is comfortable for the student and family, and how to ensure support and success within your school community. In any scenario, working with the family and the student is fundamental. Although changing names, pronouns, and other cultural signifiers is public, the decision to transition is very private and personal.
Any communications should never be made without the involvement and endorsement of the family and student (when age appropriate). Most students and families are comfortable with a communication to key faculty or staff members who are important to the school’s support of the student. These disclosures can often be made in an upfront and confidential manner once the family and/or student have agreed. Appropriate information and resources should be provided to staff. In the course of these conversations about communication to the wider community, it is OK for schools to talk with the student and family about how such messages may help the student’s transition in light of the school culture and community.
If the school does provide some kind of communication to families, the school should also make available to parents and students age-appropriate resources as well as the school’s policies relating to diversity and transgender students.
5. There are just so many things to think about! Is there a list?
Once schools start considering everything about their traditions, cultures, communities, and operating structures, the number of gender specific cultural signifiers can be overwhelming. NAIS is working with schools to create a comprehensive list, but below are some key items:
- Names and pronouns
- School dress codes
- Student records (name changes – what will be required for college, SAT/ACT, etc., as well as all locations for name changes across school systems)
- Bathrooms (what is available and what works for the student)
- P.E. class (locker rooms, fitness testing, classes separated by gender)
- Sport teams (athletic leagues, intramural, away games)
- Physical limitations from binding
- Activities (gender based – singing, acting, etc.)
- Retreats and overnights
- Dances (including at other schools)
- Gender specific traditions
- Classroom games and activities divided by gender
6. Where do we start?
Whether your school has or hasn’t engaged in this work, the place to begin is with your mission. The board and school leadership team need to recognize the mission-driven nature of embracing this area of diversity. At the same time, consider the pace at which your school can reasonably move forward, given your specific community, including staff, parents, and students. Not all school communities will be ready to adopt all gender-neutral bathrooms, etc. in the immediate future.
A school needs to set its long-term objectives for openly embracing these students and their families, and then map out ways to achieve these objectives. This does not mean that a school cannot support transgender students in the meantime, but it may mean that the school takes longer to transparently and comfortably reflect its goals in this area.
Despite the time it may take schools to achieve their goals, this work is vitally important. The statistics about transgender students are alarming: They are more likely to be bullied, even in independent schools. They also report higher percentages of forced sexual intercourse. Forty-one percent of transgender people attempt suicide, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality.
Action and Resources from the Field
This school year, NAIS is convening a small working group of schools to examine the best ways to meet the needs of transgender students and the overall school community. The group is designed to help these schools continue the work they’re doing to support transgender students. Their work is helping to develop multimedia resources for schools newly approaching this topic, including webinars, articles, infographics, and blogs.
For example, as a result of the group’s discussions, NAIS hosted a webinar in October that addressed how to think about transgender students in the context of a school’s mission as noted in the list above.
NAIS will host another webinar on November 15 about what transgender issues mean for single gender schools, which will be held in conjunction with the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools and the International Boys’ Schools Coalition.
Fulfilling Our Calling
The time when individual transgender students transition in our schools, or come to our schools newly transitioned, only happens once. While schools can adopt new policies, approaches, facilities, and trainings, students living this trend will be molded by how their own experience unfolds, under educators’ supervision and support.
Beyond the transitioning students, a school and community’s implicit and explicit messages will inform their classmates’ understanding of transgender individuals in their experiences and their ability to work with people who are different from them in a variety of contexts. The work to nurture inclusion is at the root of our purpose as educators.
Debra Wilson is general counsel at NAIS.