Transgender students focus of Feb. 4 training

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Educators from the smallest to largest school districts know that a school’s primary objective is to provide a safe and supportive learning environment for students. But how does that look for a transgender student? And what is a district’s role in ensuring that need is met?

Douglas Education Service District sought to supply answers to those and related questions through a Feb. 4 training session presented by Roseburg attorney Dan Clark at Umpqua Community College. In “Practical Advice for Accommodating Transgender Students,” Clark outlined relevant definitions, laws and statutes and also guidance for examples ranging from registration to dress codes to restrooms.

From the past and pending cases Clark and attendees cited, it’s clear that the issue is less isolated than some Douglas County residents might realize. As such, school districts would be wise to have plans in place so they aren’t caught by surprise and face damaging situations.

Showing embarrassment or repulsion is not an option, Clark said. “We have to prepare employees to have appropriate conversations to make appropriate decisions based on what students and parents want, starting at the time of registration,” he said. “Because if you get off on the wrong foot at registration, then you have nothing but pain and misery ahead.”

Oregon law has prohibited its citizens from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation since 2007. Clark cited results of a 2013 national survey of gay, lesbian and transgender students in which 56 percent of those students reported feeling unsafe in schools. Seventy-four percent said they had been verbally harassed, 36 percent reported physical harassment, and 62 of those reporting harassment said school staff either did nothing or didn’t know what to do.

School districts that fail to protect transgender students face lawsuits as well as loss of state and/or federal funds, Clark said.

Whether school districts rely on existing administrative rules or craft new policies for preventing discrimination, Clark advised being clear on definitions. (A list of definitions and copies of other handouts accompany this article.) He also recommended addressing issues of concern to transgender students, parents and the community at large, whether that be degree of confidentiality or privacy in locker rooms. Lastly, he cautioned educators to be aware of stigmatizing that may not rise to the level of bullying.

Here are some highlights of Clark’s remarks:

  • Starting with registration, be sure frontline staff members are prepared. Staff should ask parents and students how public they want the information to be. Don’t guess or assume gender identification or orientation, ask direct questions.
  • No student is ever required to furnish medical proof supporting a gender-related decision.
  • If the parent and child are not in agreement over information at registration, the safest route is to comply with the parental preference. School staff can still, however, do their best to make a safe learning environment for the student.  
  • Student preference for names and pronouns must be followed. Staff should be directed, in writing if necessary, to use those preferences at the peril of losing their jobs. Religious belief cannot be cited for non-compliance.
  • Dress codes can remain in place, particularly in regards to lewd attire or racist slogans. But it is not enforceable to ban a transgender student’s choice of clothing based on the argument that it is disruptive to the learning environment.
  • Transgender students must be allowed to use the restrooms for the sex for which they identify. District officials may need to meet with students and parents to determine how that can best be accomplished.
  • For locker rooms, start with the transgender student’s preference and what kind of privacy is desired. The comfort of other students must be assessed as well. Barriers such as curtains may be needed to accommodate the needs of all students.
  • Be prepared to bring in consultants, experts and/or legal staff for district employees and board members to use as resources.
  • In situations without immediate resolutions, tell parents or students that time is needed to research the issue. Give a deadline when there will be an answer and stick with it.

In conclusion, Clark said adults often are concerned about the reaction children will have to difficult situations. But in the case of accommodating transgender students, he said, students are rarely the problem and very little trouble.

“The good news is that kids in schools are likely to be your best allies in what happens day to day,” Clark said. “They get it, they adapt, and they don’t make a big deal about it.”  

 For a resource to support K-12 schools provided by the Human Rights Campaign, see Schools In Transition: A Guide for Supporting Transgender Students in K-12 Schools.

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