New Guidelines for Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Students in New York State

The New York State Department of Education released new guidelines for the support of transgender and gender nonconforming students, part of a growing trend of schools acknowledging the needs of these student communities.

“She lay in my lap crying, and I cried knowing that I cannot do anything to help her.”

Casey’s mom recounted the despair her 11-year-old daughter felt about the turmoil she faced at school because she was forced to use the boys’ bathroom even though she identified and lived as a girl.

Casey’s story is highlighted in Dignity for All?, a report published this year by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) on the discrimination that transgender and gender nonconforming (GNC) students face in New York public schools.

Dignity for All

In 2010, then–New York Governor David Paterson signed into law the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), which prohibits gender-based discrimination in New York public schools. But despite the law, transgender and GNC students continue to face serious bullying and harassment at school. A 2013 report on New York’s school climate released by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) concluded that “New York schools were not safe for many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) secondary school students.” The report also noted that many LGBTQ students in New York did not have access to resources such as curricula inclusive of LGBTQ people, history, and events; and that, moreover, they were not protected by “comprehensive anti-bullying/harassment school policies.”

The GLSEN report showed that more than 50 percent of LGBTQ students were sexually harassed, and 58 percent of students who were harassed or assaulted never reported the incidents.

The NYCLU’s report documented the failure of New York public schools to provide a safe environment for transgender and GNC students. It describes individual stories of harassment and assault — and the lack of action taken by school officials. The NYCLU found that, despite DASA’s reporting requirement, “one-third of schools in New York State did not report any data whatsoever on harassment and discrimination for the 2012–13 school year.”

Given its findings, the NYCLU listed recommended actions for the New York State Education Department (NYSED). These included providing guidance and training for all school staff. The publication of “Dignity for All?” prompted a response from Governor Andrew Cuomo, who demanded action from the State Education Department, which came in the form of guidelines that address the support and inclusion of transgender and gender nonconforming students in New York public schools.

Purpose of the Guidelines

The NYSED released the Guidance to School Districts for Creating a Safe and Supportive School Environment For Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Students this past July. The purpose of the guidelines is “to assist school districts in fostering an educational environment for all students that is safe and free from discrimination — regardless of sex, gender identity, or expression — and to facilitate compliance with local, state, and federal laws concerning bullying, harassment, discrimination, and student privacy.”

The document outlines ways in which teachers, staff, and school administrators can better address the concerns, safety, and privacy of transgender and gender nonconforming students (GNC). The guidelines offer terminology and descriptions of gender transitions as well as common areas of concerns (such as pronoun usage, and access to preferred restrooms and changing areas) to help staff and teachers make transgender and GNC individuals feel more safe and comfortable at school.

It addresses the need to respect student privacy in cases where parents may not be aware or may not be supportive of the student’s gender identity, and stresses the importance of accommodation based on the student’s preferences without requiring documentation from outside sources, such as doctors or parents. The guidelines also provide scenarios to help demonstrate the varied concerns of students and suggest how the school might respond. Through these scenarios, the NYSED advises schools in how to accommodate students on an individual basis.

Climate of Inclusion

Following the release of the guidelines, the Queering Education Research Institute (QuERI) released its position statement concerning the document and the treatment of transgender and GNC students in New York public schools. While QuERI believes the guidelines are a step in the right direction, it also hopes “the NYSED guidance presents a beginning of what support for transgender students might be and not the end goal.” In other words, the group made clear that there is more work to do beyond what is stated in the guidelines.

QuERI praises the guidelines for its discussion of language and the emphasis placed on individual student requests and preferences concerning accommodation, but asks that the NYSED address curricular and cultural issues, as well. The document notes: “The NYSED policy guidance stops short of addressing cultural values because it does not call for educators to consider the versions of ‘normal’ masculinity and femininity they are promoting through curriculum and pedagogy.”

Instead of creating rules that still regard transgender students as different, QuERI wants schools to challenge notions of gender in order to create a climate of inclusion, not just one of accommodation.

New York joins Washington, California, Connecticut, and Massachusetts by having guidelines that explicitly address anti-discrimination and gender identity. The Seattle Public School System includes guidelines for nondiscrimination of transgender and GNC students as part of its superintendent procedures, which outline the policies to be implemented districtwide.

Higher Education Inclusiveness

These changes are happening in higher education, as well. A handful of schools, including Indiana University and Kent State University, have established emergency funds for LGBTQ students who have been cut off financially by their parents due to their sexuality or gender identity.

Over the past year, a number of women’s colleges, including Mount Holyoke, Barnard, and Smith, have announced that they welcome transgender applicants.

That elementary schools and institutions of higher education are moving to support transgender and gender nonconforming students is an important, positive step toward gender inclusivity. But as QuERI suggests, the larger education space needs to move beyond logistical accommodations. Cultural assumptions of gender need to be reconsidered and challenged so that all students will feel valued and thrive in their learning environment.

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