Wake County trying to meet needs of transgender students

Wake County school administrators want to help transgender students avoid being bullied as they undergo what may be a difficult personal transition in the very public environment of school.

Wake, like other school districts across the country, is trying to accommodate the small but growing number of students who don’t want to go by the sex assigned to them at birth. From providing locker room and bathroom facilities to making sure of the right terminology to use, Wake administrators say they want to develop specific training to deal with bullying related to gender identity.

“It’s been about understanding and acceptance and character education and being understanding of any kind of sexual issues at a school, whether it’s bullying or gender identity or gay and lesbian” orientation, said Crystal Reardon, director of counseling for the Wake County school system, which is the largest in North Carolina.

No numbers exist on the number of transgender students in North Carolina.

Harassment, bullying common

National surveys show that transgender students report high rates of bullying and discrimination at school.

In the 2013 National School Climate Survey conducted by GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network), 73.6 percent of transgender youth reported being verbally harassed and 32.5 percent reported being physically harassed. They survey also found that 63.4 percent of transgender youth avoided bathrooms and 52.1 percent avoided locker rooms because they felt uncomfortable.

“Ideas of gender, or being a boy or girl, are very entrenched at birth,” said Emily Greytak, GLSEN’s director of research. “It’s very much alive in schools. We’re always separating students by gender in school. Anyone who defies those markings may have a really hard time.”

Molly Parks, a Durham psychologist who works with transgender youth, said the bullying can be covert. As an example, Parks said that one of her clients, who is biologically female but who identifies himself as a male, is confronted regularly by a classmate who asks, “What’s your name?”

Parks said this kind of psychological bullying can wear down transgender students.

Parks also criticized the April decision by the N.C. High School Athletic Association saying student-athletes must compete based on the gender listed on their birth certificate. The change prevents transgender athletes from competing in their preferred gender unless they have surgery to change their sex.

Feds extend Title IX scope

But also in April, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued guidance that transgender students are protected against discrimination by Title IX, legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race, and religion in federally funded education programs and activities.

In Wake County, Reardon said there’s been little guidance from the North Carolina courts on transgender students. Issues have been handled on a case-by-case basis. Parks said school districts should develop a standard protocol so that schools will already know what to do to accommodate transgender students.

While there have been few requests in the Wake system, Reardon said, the district has helped schools handle restroom and locker room concerns raised by transgender students. She said administrators try to give transgender students the ability to be in the most comfortable environments for them, while honoring the emotional and physical safety of other students as well.

Reardon said this includes letting transgender students use staff restrooms and change in a coach’s office or some other gender-neutral facility.

“We want them to feel comfortable about their sexual identity,” she said.

Some oppose new approach

Brad Dacus, president of the Pacific Justice Institute, a faith-based and parental rights legal organization in California, said that schools should only make accommodations after getting the recommendation of a psychiatrist who has evaluated the transgender student. But even then, he said schools should emulate the approach used by Wake in not having students of different biological genders use the same bathrooms and locker room changing areas.

The Pacific Justice Institute opposed a law passed last year in California allowing transgender students to use bathrooms of their choice and participate in sports by their gender identity.

“In no way should a 13-year-old girl who is undressed in a locker room deal with the emotional trauma of a 16-year-old boy taking off his clothes in front of her as she feels visually violated,” Dacus said.

Reardon said Wake school counselors will receive training about gender identity this school year. Counselors will convey the information to teachers who will share it with students in an age-appropriate way.

These are the kinds of changes welcomed by Fiona Allen, 13, the founder of the Queer Straight Alliance student group at Centennial Campus Middle School in Raleigh. Fiona said that her goals for this school year include creating a gender-neutral bathroom at the school and reducing the use of derogatory comments.

‘Gay is not slang’

“Every time I hear somebody say, ‘You’re gay’ or the F-word, I tell them, ‘Gay is not slang. Don’t be homophobic,’ ” Fiona said. “I probably say that 10 to 15 times a day every day.”

As the district gets more involved in meeting the needs of transgender youths, Wake County school board member Monika Johnson-Hostler said she expects a backlash from parents who feel the efforts go against their beliefs. But Johnson-Hostler said it’s Wake’s priority to cut down on bullying.

“If we have one student who feels threatened or bullied, they can’t learn,” she said. “The school system is designed to look after the whole child.”

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