With year-round schools starting the 2016-17 year, North Carolina students are returning to schools that are not safe and welcoming for all. This is especially true for transgender students. Despite the efforts of lawmakers, advocacy groups and allies within the business and entertainment communities, House Bill 2 remains law.
HB2 prevents transgender students from using restrooms, locker rooms and other gendered school facilities that match their gender identities. As such, North Carolina’s public schools actively participate in the state’s efforts to bully and harm transgender youth.
The 2013 National School Climate Survey shows, even before states began to pass “bathroom laws” like HB2, schools nationwide were hostile environments for transgender students. Transgender students, when compared with their peers, experience higher rates of verbal harassment, physical harassment and physical assault while at school. As a result, transgender students skip class, skip school or drop out of school to avoid these unsafe settings and situations. The high rate of absenteeism among transgender students correlates with their poor academic performance.
Sadly, school leaders are conspicuously absent from the efforts to repeal HB2. Only five of North Carolina’s 115 school districts have passed resolutions calling for a complete repeal of HB2. Of these five, only two have adjusted their district policies to clearly communicate their commitment to creating safe learning environments for transgender students. One additional district has filed a declaration, with the federal court, describing the school district’s accommodations for transgender students.
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What are the positions of the remaining 109 school districts with respect to providing safe learning environments for transgender students? More importantly, what about the statewide professional organizations that provide guidance to local school leaders on North Carolina’s education laws and policies? What about our statewide elected and appointed education leaders?
A review of the legislative guidance documentation provided by the N.C. Association of School Administrators, the N.C. School Superintendents Association and the N.C. Principals and Assistant Principals Association shows little to no mention of the implications of HB2 for school administrators or guidance on how to lobby against it. Obviously, these organizations’ stated commitment to every child does not seem to include transgender children.
To communicate our support of transgender people to transgender students, their families and the greater public, our school policies and procedures and the public statements of school leaders must explicitly name transgender youth. Just as HB2 clearly targets transgender students by naming them in the law’s language, the language of our school leaders’ must demonstrate support for transgender students.
And here is where leadership really matters: The research literature indicates that principals and superintendents lack the necessary knowledge, skills and dispositions to effectively create safe environments for LGBT students and could benefit from guidance. If elected and appointed school leaders are uncomfortable directing school administrators to defy HB2 and follow the federal government’s advice, they can at least encourage administrators to demonstrate their support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and especially transgender students.
This could include creating a queer-straight alliance, providing professional development to teachers on the needs of LGBTQ youth, using the name and pronouns that match a transgender student’s gender identity, posting safe-space stickers outside office and classroom doors and ensuring that the school library collection includes books with LGBTQ characters. Moreover, elected leaders should call for principal preparation programs and schools of education to explicitly address sexual orientation and gender identity in their leadership courses just as they address poverty, race, disability, gender and English proficiency.
At its core, HB2 is not about making restrooms safe; it is about regulating young people’s identity. HB2 prevents transgender youth from openly living their gender nonconforming lives by using the school facilities that align with their gender identities. HB2 prevents transgender students from communicating their identities safely at school. HB2 denies transgender students their rights to live openly. HB2 infringes upon the 1st and 14th Amendment rights of transgender youth.
The N.C. General Assembly uses HB2 to bully transgender youth. School leaders say they do not tolerate bullying in schools. Remaining silent makes school administrators and elected leaders complicit, active partners with the General Assembly in its efforts to discriminate against transgender students.
Bud Harrelson is a Ph.D student in education at UNC-Chapel Hill focusing on research on creating safe and welcoming environments for LGBTQ students, educators and families.