BY ANDY HUMM | Transgender students are entitled to respect for their preferred names and pronouns, confidentiality, and access to restrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their gender identity under a new guidance issued by the New York State Education Department.
“The purpose of this guidance 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,” read the document, which was issued on July 20.
The new guidelines encourage training of all staff on transgender issues and say resources should be provided to faculty to educate themselves and their students.
The guidance comes on the heels of a four-year study, which was issued in June, by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) that found “pervasive discrimination and harassment faced by transgender and gender nonconforming youth in New York public schools across the state.”
The NYCLU study prompted Governor Andrew Cuomo to write the Education Department four days later expressing “outrage” over the department’s failure to protect transgender students, adding, “I demand that you conduct a review of your full DASA [Dignity for All Students Act] compliance for all protected groups” within three weeks.
DASA is a state anti-bullying law that was enacted in 2010, but took effect in 2012 and 2013. Cuomo does not directly control the education department and often emphasizes his differences with it.
Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the State Board of Regents, which oversees all educational activities in the state, responded in a radio interview on WCNY supporting doing more for transgender students, but saying it “would be very helpful if people would stop whacking the State Education Department” and help fund it.
Lauren Frederico, the NYCLU’s lead organizer on the study, said their call for action was prompted by a steady stream of complaints from transgender students and their parents about mistreatment in schools.
“The data collected under [DASA] is not sufficient,” Frederico said. “A third of all schools did not report any acts of discrimination.”
The largest category of reported incidents was a combination of sexual orientation, gender identity, and sex.
“Transgender youth will never report incidents to school staff because they believe nothing will be done,” Frederico said. “Schools need to educate [students] about what they should do if they experience bullying or harassment.”
She is “very hopeful” that the new guidance “will result in real change at the school level.”
Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell, who is openly gay and represents Manhattan’s Upper West Side, said he was not consulted by the NYCLU or the State Education Department in the push for the new guidance, despite writing and championing DASA in 2010 and expanding it to cover cyber-bullying in 2013. Those were the first bills in New York to pass with transgender inclusion. The statewide Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) continues to be blocked in the Republican-led State Senate.
“Identifying the problem is easy,” O’Donnell said. “The question is how you fix it. We have hundreds of school districts.”
He plans an October roundtable with Assembly Education Committee Chair Cathy Nolan, who represents part of Queens, and Elizabeth Payne of the LGBT Social Science & Public Policy Center at Hunter College, an expert on school bullying, to come up with solutions.
“The kids from our [LGBT] community are the most victimized,” O’Donnell said. He wants teachers trained on how to recognize the problem and address it aggressively. He is looking at legislation that would require teachers-in-training to master these issues “in order to get their licenses.”
The New York State Public High School Athletic Association has also drafted guidelines for the participation of transgender students in school sports. Donna Lieberman, the NYCLU’s executive director, told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle that this is a “welcome step forward,” but cautioned that “requiring students to submit documentation confirming their gender identity will discourage many students from playing sports.”