Experts say guidelines could help schools avoid controversies like recent one in Fort Worth
From a 6-year-old kindergartner in Florida who wears dresses to school to a 17-year-old senior in California who ran for prom king to 15-year-old Rochelle Evans of Fort Worth, trangender kids are gaining acceptance in the nation’s public education system.
But discrimination and harassment are still widespread, some experts say, and very few U.S. school districts have written policies related to transgender students. Although the Fort Worth Independent School District reportedly agreed last week to allow the 15-year-old Rochelle, formerly known as Rodney, to identify as a girl at Eastern Hills High School, FWISD is not one of those few.
Neither is the Dallas Independent School District, which has a policy prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation but not gender identity. DISD spokeswoman Ivette Cruz Weis said administration officials are not aware of ever having had an openly transgender student in the district.
Meanwhile, some districts, like Los Angeles’, have gone a step further than merely prohibiting discrimination and harassment against transgender students they’ve laid out extensive guidelines covering everything from restroom use to dress codes to names and pronouns. Transgender is used to describe those whose outward appearance and internal identity differs from their sex at birth, regardless of whether their biological characteristics have changed.
“For any district to prepare for their staff to deal with situations they’re going to face is going to be helpful,” said Sue Spears, director of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Educational Equity Compliance Office.
“It’s always better to be proactive,” Spears said, adding that the district has a handful of transgender students. “How do you hold people accountable when you haven’t clearly articulated your expectations for behavior and response?”
The LAUSD, second-largest in the U.S. with more than 720,000 students, has a seven-page reference guide requiring district staff to identify students by the names and pronouns they prefer; allow students to dress in accordance with the gender they assert; and either allow students to use bathrooms and locker rooms based on the gender they assert or provide reasonable alternatives.
Rochelle has said she was suspended by FWISD for refusing an assistant principal’s order to remove a wig and high heels. The incident resulted in a controversy that wasn’t resolved until attorneys stepped in on her behalf. One of those attorneys, Jerry Simoneaux Jr. of Houston, said he believes if the district had a policy in place, the whole thing could have been avoided.
“It would have been so easy for an administrator to point to a policy and say, “‘Excuse me, this is the policy on transgender people, and you can’t be harassing her,’” Simoneaux said.
However, he added he’s not optimistic districts in Texas will be drafting such policies in the near future.
“I think a written policy on transgender students would probably scare a lot of parents,” he said. “Maybe later on, as society becomes more aware of transgender people, I hope to see policies in place. We have to do this one step at a time.”
Despite the lack of a written policy, Simoneaux said Fort Worth ISD officials agreed during a meeting May 2 to allow Rochelle to return to school as Rochelle and use a single-stall bathroom in the nurse’s office as opposed to a boy’s or girl’s room.
“The good thing is that they were totally open to hearing what we had to say,” Simoneaux said “I think it was embarrassing for Fort Worth ISD to have this situation arise.”
FWISD administration officials did not respond to a request from the Voice this week for more information about practices related to transgender students. Members of the district’s Board of Education also did not return phone calls seeking comment.
But the district’s apparent decision to allow Rochelle to identify as a girl in school reflects a growing national trend, according to Shannon Minter, a member of the board of directors of the national Transgender Law & Policy Institute.
“What we’re seeing is that increasingly schools around the country, even if they don’t have a formal policy, they are generally, on the whole, doing the right thing and accepting transgender students,” Minter said. “There’s still a lot of the violence, and there’s still a lot of discrimination and harassment and fear. For the first time, we’re also seeing really significant progress.”
This is largely due to the fact that districts that don’t accept transgender students face the specter of lawsuits.
In 2000, the Massachusetts Superior Court ruled that a middle school could not prohibit a transgender student from expressing her identity because it would violate her First Amendment right to free expression and constitute sex discrimination. While the Massachusetts ruling does not apply to other states, there is also a possibility that transgender students are protected by federal Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in public education.
One good way for districts to avoid legal problems would be to adopt written policies.
“I think having a written policy and training helps things go much more smoothly,” Minter said. “Probably most districts aren’t even aware that this is something that they need to be thinking about. We’re trying to get the word out.”
The Dallas Voice sent an e-mail to all nine members of DISD’s Board of Trustees inquiring about the issue, but received no responses. Weis, the DISD spokeswoman, said administration officials told her they are unsure how the district the 12th-largest in the country with an enrollment of about 159,000 would respond to a transgender student.
“We would deal with these issues on a case-by-case basis,” she said. “But not having had a preceding case, it would be hard to make an assumption.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, April 27, 2007.