By Kate Snyder
For the first time ever, transgender students in Frederick County, Maryland, began the 2017-2018 school year with a comprehensive policy in place to protect their rights. The policy explicitly states that bathrooms and locker rooms should be used according to gender identity and provides alternatives for students who feel uncomfortable for any reason. The policy also clarifies issues around participation in sports teams, preferred names and pronouns, and dress codes for school sponsored events.
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“Having this policy in place makes students feel safer,” said Missy Dirks, President of the Frederick County Teachers Association (FTCA). “The intent of this policy was never political. It was always about responding to our students’ requests for help and creating a more inclusive environment where all students can learn.”
NEA members are on the frontlines, supporting and advocating for transgender students, and working with school boards, school districts and state legislators to create state and local policies. For more information, check out NEA’s Legal Guidelines for Transgender Student Rights.
The student-led movement that created this policy was sparked by the biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey released in 2015 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The survey drew attention to the alarming number of gay and lesbian students who had contemplated and made a plan for suicide. This data moved the Frederick County School Board to convene a meeting to discuss the issue. A number of transgender students came and told their stories, shared their experiences, and noted that the CDC survey did not offer them the option to identify as transgender.
“The data on the number of students who are bullied, who feel unsafe, and who have an active plan for suicide is shocking,” said Dirks. “Transgender students bravely stood up at that meeting and told their stories and essentially said: ‘We need help and we need the adults to be adults and create an environment where we feel safe.’ ”
“The concerns that students raised in that meeting did not fall on deaf ears,” added Dirks.
In response, the FCTA provided training to help educators understand transgender issues, including how to take proactive steps to support students. Over the next 18 months, educators worked to support a student-led advocacy campaign that moved the school board to pass the comprehensive transgender policy.
A 2016 letter from the Obama Administration to the nation’s school districts, which clarified existing Title IX law and affirmed the civil rights of transgender Americans, was helpful in outlining the legal protections already in place that could be affirmed by the school board policy. The Trump Administration’s decision to rescind this letter provided an opportunity to move forward immediately to put protections in place for all Frederick County students.
“The rescinding of the Title IX guidance letter by the Trump Administration created a lot of confusion. Students, parents and the community urged the school board to move forward with a clear policy,” said Dirks. “The FCTA Representative Assembly voted unanimously in favor of a comprehensive transgender policy and teachers made sure to show up and demonstrate that through our testimony during the hearing process.”
Over the course of six months of fact finding and deliberations—which included public meetings, open policy workshops and public testimony—the school board developed the current comprehensive policy. In June, the board passed the policy on a 5-1 vote.