*Article taken from Illinois Safe Schools Alliance Quarterly Newsletter / Summer 2015
The Alliance’s Push for Gender Inclusive Schools | Owen Daniel McCarter, Policy and Advocacy Director
According to the 2011 National Transgender Survey, 78% of transgender people experienced harassment while in K-12 schools. 35% of that harassment was physical and 12% was sexual. This pervasive, systemic harassment directly leads to gender expansive students dropping out of school or being pushed out of education because of disparate school code enforcement against gender non-conforming students. They are simply targeted more than other students. While we still need more data on transgender youth suicide rates, a staggering 41% of transgender adult respondents reported having attempted suicide (compared to 1.6% of the general population). This rate increased significantly if the individual was harassed, bullied, or assaulted by teachers while youth in school (59% – 76%). Digging even deeper into the data, it is clear that the school violence and harassment disproportionately impact students of color and is often caused directly by teachers and staff. Due to student activism coupled with judicial and legislative efforts across the country, the issue of transgender students’ rights has gained national attention. There are concrete questions every school needs to consider regarding a transgender student: What are the students’ rights regarding confidentiality of their gender identity? How should the school list the student’s name and gender on class rosters, email systems, and in the student records? How will the school protect the safety of the student and respond to student, parent, and teacher questions about gender transition? How is the school teaching gender and contributing to a culture of transphobia? What sports teams can a transgender student play on? How will dress codes be enforced? And, perhaps the most discussed issue—how will a school insure that a student can safely use the restrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity? In 2014, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court found that a public elementary school violated state human rights laws and discriminated against transgender fifth grader when the school prohibited her from using the girls’ communal bathroom and required her to use the unisex staff bathroom. Following this decision, several state legislatures have introduced “bathroom bills” in an attempt to restrict access to restrooms that correspond with gender identity. Fortunately, most of these bills have been shut down but some are still pending in state legislatures. Fortunately, transphobic harassment and violence is not inherent to education and Illinois is one of the few states nationwide that explicitly prohibits gender identity-based discrimination in education. As we’ve seen in other jurisdictions, with remarkably small changes to school policy and curriculum, and by providing staff trainings that shift our institutionalized understanding of gender, the school climate can dramatically improve for all students, including those who are gender expansive. As the Alliance’s new Policy & Advocacy Director, I have moved quickly on advancing the Alliance’s critical school policy work, particularly around violence prevention, school pushout, and transgender student inclusion. In February, I was given the opportunity to lead two comprehensive transgender student inclusion workshops at the Naperville Regional Office of Education training entitled “A Day in the Life of Transgender Students: Creative Approaches to Teaching and Parenting Elementary, Middle and High School Students.” This institute was overwhelmingly well-received by the 200+ teacher, administrator, and parent attendees and was covered by the Chicago Tribune in a recent article on transgender students. Directly following this training, I began working closely with a suburban school district just west of Chicago on reviewing and expanding existing policies to insure that gender expansive students K-8 have access to a safe and affirming education. I have also been a leading organizer of a new Gender Inclusive Schools working group in the North Suburbs, a Chicago Public Schools transgender inclusion working group, and, along with our Youth Justice Coordinators, have been actively supporting a high school Gay/Straight Alliance pushing for trans inclusion guidelines at their school. To support cultural changes in how we think about gender, other Alliance staff members and I have presented to teachers, school counselors, administrators, parents, students, GSA advisors, and policy experts across the state on the need for gender inclusive schools. The Alliance is paving the way and needs more support, now more than ever.