Each year, as the new school year begins, my social media feeds are filled with stories of families of transgender youth asking school and district administrators to respect and affirm their child’s gender identity. Overwhelmingly, administrators and teachers are stepping up, educating themselves about how to meet the unique needs of transgender students in school. Some school systems have even devoted precious staff training time on this topic. Taking these steps fosters a safe and welcoming environment for all students, and ensures compliance with state and federal antidiscrimination laws.
Proactively educating the school community in advance of a student’s transition and addressing misinformation about transgender children is also a very important part of the necessary planning that surrounds a student’s gender transition. Overlooking or underestimating the community response to the transition can compromise a school’s ability to maintain a safe and positive school environment for transgender students. The Hillsboro School District in Missouri is the latest example of how this missed opportunity can jeopardize the well-being of transgender students. Over the past week the Hillsboro School District has been inundated with opposition to its decision allowing Lila Perry, a transgender girl, use the girls’ facilities. In addition to drawing a large crowd of parents at a recent board meeting, nearly 150 students walked out of school in protest.
Lila had vocal support from many students, staff, and community members, but the harm and disruption caused by the opposition was too much. Within a few hours of the protest, Lila withdrew from her physical education class so she would no longer need access to the girls’ locker room. The district rightly issued a statement in response to the protest that sought to strike a balance between students’ free speech rights and its obligation to extend equal treatment to transgender students. However, damage has been already done. Lila still has to attend school every day knowing that 150 of her peers want to deny her the basic human dignity afforded all other students. Unless the school takes immediate steps to minimize the harm, the existing opposition may become even more vocal – subjecting Lila to ongoing harm.
Beyond making statements to media, the Hillsboro School District needs to find immediate, constructive, and preemptive ways to address the misinformation and fear that fuels this antagonism towards transgender students. The school district should start by hosting parent education nights and student assemblies to create a space for parents, students, and community members to learn about gender identity development and the importance of affirming a transgender student’s gender identity. These forums would also provide an opportunity for students and parents to ask questions or express concerns. Schools in Transition, a guide for working with transgender students, draws from years of experience supporting school districts in this situation and provides tools and practical insight that school districts can use to develop these educational programs. These events can help kick-start the public education process, but must be part of a broader effort in order to result in lasting change.
This may seem like a daunting task, especially given that resources are already stretched thin. However, investing resources in educating the school and community about transgender people furthers the mission of schools and is a cost-saving measure. The return on that investment will be a more supportive and welcoming environment that affirms the dignity of all students, irrespective of gender identity. Taking these preemptive measures will protect the next openly transgender student from public antagonism, and will prevent the need to spend the school district’s scarce resources on responding to a public outcry or a discrimination lawsuit.