Transgender equality rights in schools

Marsha Sutton
Marsha Sutton

By Marsha Sutton

Update: It was announced today, Aug. 13, that the governor has signed this bill into law. — MS

A bill some say is long overdue and others call controversial has passed both the state Assembly and the full Senate and is expected to be signed into law soon by the governor.

“Pupil Rights: Sex-Segregated School Programs and Activities” (AB 1266, sponsored by state assembly member Tom Ammiano, Democrat from San Francisco), states: “A pupil shall be permitted to participate in sex-segregated school programs or activities, including athletic teams and competitions, and use facilities consistent with his or her gender identity, irrespective of the gender listed on the pupil’s records.”

This would require that a public school student in grades kindergarten through 12th be allowed to use school restrooms and locker rooms and participate on sports teams of the gender they identify with, regardless of their biological sex.

According to a July 5 Associated Press story, the bill “sparked an impassioned debate on the Senate floor about when transgender students’ right to expression might conflict with other students’ discomfort and right to privacy.” A challenge to the bill failed.

Mike Grove, associate superintendent of educational services for the San Dieguito Union High School District, said AB 1266 is a one-sentence addition to an existing law that already prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. This bill simply spells out in clearer detail the rights of transgender students.

Grove said the bill’s language was taken almost word-for-word from a policy the Los Angeles Unified School District enacted several years ago, and he said three other states – Washington, Connecticut and Massachusetts – have similar state laws.

Although some have raised concerns about transgender rights conflicting with the privacy rights of other students, Grove anticipates few problems.

“I doubt it’s going to create major issues,” he said. “It’s probably scaring some people initially based on what they perceive could be issues – all of the what-ifs.”

The fear, he said, is that a biological boy, for example, will wake up one morning and suddenly decide he’s a girl and demand to use the girls’ locker room. But it doesn’t happen that way, he said.

“What I’ve seen in other states is they have a process put in place where the student has to kind of formally declare their gender identity,” he said. “It’s not that one day they decide they’re going to walk into the girls’ locker room.”

It’s a formal process by which the student asserts his or her gender identity and therefore their rights related to that decision, and that generally involves the family and is not a casual determination that happens overnight, he said.

Once a discussion among the student, the family and school officials takes place, and the student decides to be identified as the opposite of their biological sex, then the school will ask the student’s preference about facility use.

Many times the transgender student is not comfortable using the restrooms or lockers rooms of the gender they identify with, Grove said. But the student gets to choose.

Some districts have provided a private restroom, both for the privacy of the transgender student as well as for other students who might not be comfortable with the situation, he said. But that can be problematic if the transgender student is made to feel isolated.

Privacy issues are complicated.

“It’s dicey, because you obviously can’t tell everyone that this student is transgender and will be in the locker room with you because that’s private information for that student,” Grove said.

Thorny social issues

According to a July 9 column by Thom Senzee for The Huffington Post, San Diego transgender rights activist Connor Maddocks says self-identification is key.

“I get to decide who I am, according to the state of California and a growing number of other states,” Maddocks is quoted as saying.

Although many teens are confused about their sexual identity, transgender children can struggle for years and don’t suddenly decide to change their gender identity at the flip of a switch. So this kind of decision is not one made lightly.

But pitting the rights transgender students deserve against the privacy rights of students who object to sharing a bathroom, locker room or shower with a student who is biologically a member of the opposite sex sounds like a perfect storm of legitimate rights vs. legitimate rights.

On the other hand, as a friend said, “People have to learn not to freak out about differences.”

Educators getting by on minimal funding to teach traditional lessons in history, math, science and writing may end up spending dwindling taxpayer money on lawyers over challenges to the bill.

With limited public money, are these the kinds of issues school districts should devote their time and public money to?

Yet schools as the proper place to sort out these thorny social issues has historical validity.

“Schools are a microcosm of our society, so these social issues have always been a part of our schools,” Grove said, referencing the civil rights and free speech movements from the 60s.

“Schools have always been a place where these issues can be volatile because you have this community of all these differing beliefs and political views,” he said. “They play themselves out in schools.”

But he said having students personally involved in movements that raise social consciousness can produce profound changes in awareness and understanding.

“Kids can read about civil rights in a textbook, but this is where they see it playing out in real life,” he said. “And I believe that’s educational for kids and beneficial.”

Transgender students at San Dieguito

San Dieguito has had one or two high school students every few years who identify as transgender, said Grove, who noted that it’s rare at the middle school level “because most kids aren’t ready to be that public with their gender identity at that age.”

He said there may be more, but currently only two students have had formal interactions with the district. Typically, it’s a student transitioning to a new gender identity and living an active life as a transgender, he said.

Some students have been in the process of or moving toward undergoing sex change operations.

“We have had those situations on our campuses, and it really hasn’t ever been an issue other than making sure they aren’t getting bullied,” said Grove, who has worked in the district for 24 years.

Facility use has been a non-issue to date because the students “were comfortable going to whatever their biological gender facility was,” he said. “We haven’t had any big controversies where they’re asking for anything that we weren’t able to very easily accommodate without impacting others.”

To date the district has not had requests by transgender students to play sports on teams they gender-identify with, and is waiting to hear from the California Interscholastic Federation for guidance.

“It’s all going to be dictated by CIF rules and policy,” Grove said.

Current policy and law, as Grove understands it, is that a boy, for example, who identifies as a girl must be allowed to participate in girls’ sports. And vice versa.

“CIF is going to be very concerned about that,” he said. “In order for that student to be eligible to play on that team, they’re going to have very clear criteria.”

Grove said he would not be surprised to see some litigation around the athletics issue.

This bill focuses on K-12 grades only. But – more unintended consequences – what happens if it is applied to college sports, or even professional athletic competitions including the Olympics?

Grove said there have been isolated incidents across the country, including one case at the Olympics, associated with this conundrum. “It’s going to have to get sorted out,” he said.

Not a big deal

The law already prohibits discrimination based upon gender identity or sexual orientation. “All this [bill] did was make it very explicit,” Grove said.

Once the bill is approved by the governor, it becomes law at once. But how it is implemented will take time.

“What happens after that is the California Department of Education will come out with guidance for school districts about how you legally implement this in the school setting,” he said.

He expects unanticipated quandaries. “We’ll come up with how we think we’re going to do it, and then a scenario will come up that we hadn’t anticipated and we’ll adjust,” he said.

When new laws affecting education are passed, the CDE generally provides guidelines, and then San Dieguito reviews its current policies and regulations related to the new law to see if adjustments are needed.

“I doubt we will have to make anything formal in board policy, but in terms of our practices we will definitely come up with something specific in writing so our schools know how to handle the situation,” Grove said.

So far he said there has been no communication or resistance from parents or staff on AB 1266.

“I don’t anticipate it being that big a deal,” Grove said.

Perhaps one high school student I asked about this said it best. He was completely comfortable with the idea, but backed off a bit when carefully considering how to implement the specifics. His thoughtful comment after considering all aspects was this:

“The bill is important because it will help people recognize that transgender people deserve equal rights and full respect, just like everyone else. The details are sticky, and implementation will be a trial. But the overall point may be to change the way people think. And for that, it will be worth it.”

On that I hope everyone can wholeheartedly agree.

Marsha Sutton can be reached at SuttComm@san.rr.com.

   
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