Last Friday, the Obama administration issued a directive to school districts across the country mandating that transgender students be allowed to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. The LGBTQ community and its allies lauded the issuance of the new guidelines as a move in the right direction. Opponents fired back, with the lieutenant governor of Texas ordering the state’s schools to ignore the mandate. At the end of the day, the most important obligation of schools is the safety of their students, which makes this decision the right one for schools and children.
The law on this issue is clear. Under Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, discrimination based on a student’s gender is prohibited. Furthermore, Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972 bars schools receiving public funding from discriminating on the basis of sex. The U.S. Department of Education issued a letter asserting that, “Under Title IX, discrimination based on a person’s gender identity, a person’s transgender status, or a person’s nonconformity to sex stereotypes constitutes discrimination based on sex.” (US DOE OCR, 2014). While the president’s edict doesn’t have the force of the law, it comes with the implied threat that noncompliant schools will lose their federal funding
The directive also allows schools to meet their academic goals. Just above physiological needs on Maslow’s Hierarchy are needs for safety, followed by love and belonging. Students who do not feel safe and accepted at school (and how can a child feel safe and accepted when told that the way they are is wrong and when made to use facilities in which they feel targeted and unsafe?) do not attend school. And when students don’t come to school, they don’t learn. We also know that school climate has a huge impact on achievement. Students at inclusive schools are more highly motivated, engaged in learning, and committed to school (Karin Osterman, 2000, Review of Education Research).
But let’s get to the heart of this. Most teachers I know aren’t in the profession for the money or the test scores. They chose education because they love children. The precious children in our classrooms deserve our love and acceptance. Allowing them to use the facilities that match who they are inside is part of that. By doing this, we are protecting vulnerable young people from harassment, bullying, and physical violence. According to the 2013 GLSEN National School Climate Survey, gender-expansive youth who don’t experience acceptance face long-term negative effects on their mental health and life satisfaction. They are at risk for depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide. This is about lives, people.
So what does “change” look like for teachers in schools across America? It’s not that difficult, but let me be clear. It does not mean requiring a transgender student to use a separate gender-neutral facility (unless that is the child’s choice). When you have a transgender student, you listen and take your cues from the child. How does the child identify? What bathroom does the child want to use? Is the answer the same in all situations? You may need to let the child try out different options to figure out what feels right to them. Maybe you need to send an ally kid with them during the transition. A flexible, child-centered approach is the right one.
So take a deep breath. You have the law on your side. You are making an academically sound decision. But most important, you are protecting the little ones in your care. And that’s the right thing to do.