Transgender student rights emerging challenge for America’s schools

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Update: High School District 211, in Palatine, Ill., heard appeals from residents but declined early this month to step away from a settlement with the U.S. Department of Education to provide locker room access to a transgender student. After receiving a letter from the federal Education Department, the board declined to take another vote, thereby keeping the settlement in place.

By Sabrina Holcomb

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Transgender students were given new hope last week when the Department of Education found a Chicago-area school district in violation of anti-discrimination laws for denying a transgender student who plays on a girls’ sports team full access to the girl’s locker room.

It’s not the first time Obama administration officials have stepped into the fray over a school district’s treatment of transgender students, but in past cases, they’ve always managed to reach a settlement. This time, the Chicago-area district is choosing to fight its case in court even though it faces the possible loss of federal Title IX funding—a cost few school districts can afford.

A growing number of districts may face similar challenges as momentum builds to protect the rights of LGBTQ, and specifically transgender, students.

Schools need to get ahead of this issue instead of playing catch-up in a crisis, advises Hilario Benzon, a classroom teacher currently serving as Diversity Administrator for Colorado’s Jefferson County School district.

“Any district who says this is not an issue for them needs to know it probably will be an issue soon,” Benzon cautions. “They just don’t know about it yet.”

It’s not a coincidence the Illinois case involves shower facilities (the student was ordered to shower behind privacy curtains that single her out from the rest of the team). Schools that that have made peace with accommodations for transgender students when it comes to dress codes, pronouns, and even sports teams have drawn the line at bathroom use (an emotionally charged theme that recently scuttled an LGBTQ rights referendum in Houston).

What many adults and students don’t realize is that bathroom use is a make-or-break issue that drives many transgender students to skip school—resulting in a higher rate of suspensions and expulsions, health issues caused by not going to the bathroom, and in worst-case scenarios, the kind of isolation and ostracism that can lead to suicide or violence at the hands of other students.

Just being able to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify would have kept more transgender students safe, given them their dignity, and ultimately kept them in school, say the students themselves.

“If students don’t feel safe and free to be who they are in their school, we as educators have to ask the hard question of why,” says Benzon, who insists that ensuring the safety and wellbeing of students, while giving them the opportunity and access they need to be successful, is one of the most important aspects of an educator’s job.

Benzon is proud to work in a state that has legal protections for transgender students (Colorado is one of only 13 states, plus the District of Columbia, with laws that explicitly protect the “T” students in the LGBTQ rainbow). Citing years of experience as a student advocate, Benzon offers this advice to fellow educators and school districts to help them get out ahead of potential problems:

  1. Lobby for anti-bullying and anti-discrimination laws that are specific rather than broad, to ensure that transgender students are identified as a protected group.
  2. Develop a support plan for each transgender student in full collaboration with the student. The plan should cover all pertinent issues: correct name and pronoun use, access to bathrooms, access to sports teams, etc.
  3. Leverage community partners, students, staff and families who have experience with this issue. An informed district makes better decisions.

“We can’t do right by our students without talking about the issues that make us uncomfortable and getting to know each other as human beings,” says Benzon. “I do a lot of social justice work, and it’s harder to talk about someone when you know their name.”

For transgender students, a name is a good place to start.

Be the one caring adult that makes a difference in a student’s life. Download Schools in Transition: A Guide for Supporting Transgender Students in K-12 Schools and take NEA’s Bullyfree Pledge.

Reader Comments

  1. Everyone appears to be ignorant of the fact that just because a male believes that he is a female does not mean that he does not maintain a sexual interest in females. Even those who undergo hormone therapy may maintain their sexual interest in the opposite sex. Yes I have worked with such individuals and know it to be true. It is very unfortunate that our society has resorted to the pablum of pop-psychology to respond to this issue leaving the deeper issues of these individuals unaddressed and crippling them for life. Where one uses the restroom or takes a shower does not define them or their sexuality. They need to be taught some basic cognitive skills, something which is woefully lacking in all segments of society but most notably in education and politics.

  2. It is a sad day that we are faced with because we have legalized social morals that go contrary to the Word of God. Seems as if even the church is turning it’s back on the Word of God, that whatever we want to do is perfectly alright. Don’t get me wrong The Love of God is for all people, but the sin of mankind is not overlooked by Him and both Old and New Testament declares that when you go contrary to your gender it is an abomination unto God. We need to get back to basics, what is wrong with the T person having to shower behind a curtain, especially if the person still has the genitals of the male (in other words one who has not had a complete sex change). Maybe time has come for all showers to be enclosed so that students do not look upon each other. I don’t go along with the laws of the land when they go contrary to God’s laws.

    1. You wrote that it seems that the church is turning it’s back on the word of God.

      I think that’s where you need to start. With in your version of what you believe to be “the church”. First I believe you are to make sure you’re following all of your own biblical rules. Then make sure your organization is, from top to bottom and live a life that a non-believer would want for themselves.

      People who are part of a religion signed up to follow a bunch of rules. Other people haven’t. So if you choose not to follow them, the odds of a non-believer following them is something they didn’t sign up for and it shouldn’t be expected of them.

      “Speck in your brother’s eye, plank in yours” type of thing.

      What is it about this article that has you focusing outwardly instead of inwardly?

  3. Aside from the issue this article (and I assume our NEA) is ignoring that girls under 18 should not be in a situation where they have to see male genitalia, apart from the fact that the transgender student was not denied the opportunity to play on a girl’s team, putting aside the fact that the transgender student really had a better situation because the student was allowed enviable privacy in the shower where her teammates were not; the idea that the NEA would support the threat of losing federal funding for non-compliance should gall all of us who read this. If the Chicago school had rejected NCLB at the loss of federal funding, they would have been lionized for their courage. The NEA needs to champion our cause not to allow Washington to decide how we teach or how we run our schools. I hope the NEA does not have in mind to give up this fight in favor of currently correct politics.

    1. You realize that most girls don’t view male genitalia as something they have to be stuck seeing and that most wouldn’t mind it all. And if you think girls that are between 15-18 haven’t seen dozens of penises, you’d be wrong if they have an internet connection. If they have a cell phone, It’s fairly probable that they’ve had or have a picture of one on their cell phone from a boy they know.

    2. Well said. Everyone has a right to privacy. It’s obviously not ok to let everyone shower together . I suppose schools will have to make individual showers going forward if ppl are going to have these kinds of extreme opinions.

  4. I have worked with transgender students and their parents for many years as president of PFLAG in our area. There is no broad brush that paints all trans people the same. Biology has little to do with how and when an individual identifies. The age of 18 means nothing to a transgender individual. The happiest and most successful are those who have parents who understand and support their children. Teachers can make that same positive difference and help end the high suicide rate of people surrounded by those who do not appreciate their struggles.

  5. “If students don’t feel safe and free to be who they are in their school, we as educators have to ask the hard question of why,”

    We need to consider the feelings of the kids who are straight as well. Do they feel comfortable? Just because they are the majority does not make it OK to cast their rights aside. I know that I would not feel comfortable have a transgender person that doesn’t share my body parts next to me in a bathroom; especially if I’m using the bathroom as a teacher and that student is next to me. That sounds like a big problem to me. This opens up a bigger can of worms. If this is really going to be a rights issue then there needs to be some kind of one room gender neutral bathrooms available in our buildings.

  6. There are solutions that respect the rights of all. For example, many schools have one-person bathrooms in the nurse’s office or elsewhere. Transgender students can use those bathrooms. That kind of solution respects everyone.

    The majority of students who aren’t transgender, however, should not have to be put in situations that are offensive to them. Arrangements can be made for transgender students on a case by case basis that would differ for each school and student group.

  7. What about a transgender guy, who identifies as female, having to share a shower or restroom with a transgender girl, who self identifies as male? Isn’t this an example of a pressing issue in most schools today?

  8. And what about the “rights” of all the other students who will feel uncomfortable having someone who looks totally like the other sex in the bathroom or locker room? Privacy curtains seem reasonable, frankly. And what tiny percentage of students are we talking about here, anyway? Is that not somewhat a tempest in a teapot?

    1. Concerned about the comment that a transgender person presents as looking totally like the other sex. Most often a person who is transitioning presents as the gender they identify with. Wondering why students who feel “uncomfortable” should be allowed to trump the rights of someone who is transgender. Perhaps those students who are feeling uncomfortable with a transgender person in the restroom or locker room should be allowed to have access to a separate facility.
      What is most disturbing is the comment that we are only talking about a tiny percentage of students. Is the implication than that this issue is not important? Perhaps if you had a child who identified as transgender and was dealing with this very issue you might view it a little differently and with more compassion.

  9. I agree with protecting the rights of all students. I believe when we begin to say transgender rights versus everyone else rights that is discrimination. I believe it that everyone need to look at the BIG picture. The transgender students may feel uncomfortable in certain situations as well as students who do not identify themselves as transgender. Everyone rights needs to be protected and all places need to be proactive in doing so.

  10. Those who are younger than 18 Cannot make binding decisions for themselves; therefore however they choose to ‘identify’ themselves, may not force their choices upon us. Biology proves we are male & female. Until a person reaches 18, they may not force anyone to give them so-called rights to deny nature & biology. Even if the 18 year old is in school with younger students, they still may not force their own denial of biological fact upon anyone !

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