DOWNEY – Last week, Downey Unified School District (DUSD) entered into an agreement with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) to rectify issues pertaining to the treatment of a transgender student. Under the terms of the voluntary agreement, the District will work to ensure gender nonconforming and transgender students have a safe educational environment. The agreement is a result of a report filed against the District by the transgender student back in 2011. In it, she alleges years of abuse beginning in elementary school.
Her report detailed incidents of bullying and harassment from peers, though her allegations also shine a spotlight on how unsuccessful schools are at supporting transgender students and understanding their needs. According to the report, teachers and administrators failed to protect the student from abuse while also regularly disciplining her for gender nonconformance.
In the report, the student alleges her make-up was confiscated, despite other girls being allowed to wear it. The student also detailed how she was forced to write an apology letter for making male students feel uncomfortable because she’d worn makeup. Additional allegations include being removed from group counseling sessions with other students because of concerns she’d discuss her gender identity, being called her “male name”, and being encouraged to transfer to a different school where her peers wouldn’t know she was transgender. The student did eventually transfer to a different Downey middle school, where she is currently enrolled.
DUSD Superintendent, John Garcia, is quick to point out that what was entered into with OCR “was a resolution; not a settlement.” The first paragraph of the resolution says as much, articulating that the District is entering into the agreement “without admitting any violation of federal law.”
The federal law in question would be Title IX, which is part of the Education Amendments of 1972 that prohibits discrimination in education on the basis of sex. “Gender identity” is not specifically included in Title IX, but according to the website Think Progress, in this case, OCR interpreted “sex” to include sex stereotyping, meaning “sex discrimination includes ‘harassment for students for failing to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity and femininity.’” Under this definition and in this particular case, the transgender student was protected. Only as recently as April did the Department of Education contend that Title IX protections extend to transgender students, who often fail to be protected under the law.
The resolution agreement entered into with OCR is far-reaching, with DUSD hiring a consultant to advise on eliminating gender identity discrimination District-wide, including implementing anti-discrimination policies to protect trans students and training staff and faculty on issues related to gender nonconformance. Regular school “climate assessments” will also track developments.
The District will also remove from her 2011-2012 records all discipline imposed on the transgender student who filed the report. The agreement also asserts she will be treated the same as other female students, including being granted access to girls’ restrooms and locker rooms without fear of discipline.
According to Garcia, 80 percent of the initiatives outlined in the resolution agreement were already being done by DUSD because of the School Success and Opportunity Act, otherwise known as Assembly Bill 1266, which went into effect on January 1, 2014. AB 1266 was the first law of its kind in the country, requiring that California public schools respect students’ gender identity and making sure students can fully participate in all school activities, sports teams, programs, and facilities that match their gender identity.
The DUSD resolution has made headlines across the country, with magazines like The Advocate, which is the premiere publication for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) community, characterizing the treatment of the transgender student as “hideous abuse.” Garcia says there has been a great deal “factually inaccurate reporting” and that DUSD aims for all 23,000 of its students to feel safe, secure, and supported.
“Because of the recent assembly bill in California, the topic of gender identity has really come to the forefront,” Garcia said. “We care about our students and we take the ‘whole child’ approach, which means understanding where students are and meeting them there. We treat all students equally and with respect, that is important to everyone who is a part of DUSD.”
News of DUSD’s resolution agreement came at an interesting time, just days after the 26th annual National Coming Out Day, which is a celebration of individuals coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ). It was also on the heels of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) announcing a resolution to ensure LGBTQ students feel safer on school campuses.
According to LAUSD, 25 percent of students have an LGBTQ family member or self-identify as LGBTQ and Monica García, the LAUSD board member who wrote the resolution, wants to ensure district schools are committed to providing safe and affirming spaces for all students and their families.
Bullying because of sexual orientation and gender expression are among the most common forms of harassment in schools, though transgender students remain one of the most vulnerable communities, experiencing unprecedented rates of homelessness and discrimination. They are also at higher risk of self-harm.
According to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 41 percent of people who are transgender or gender-nonconforming have attempted suicide sometime in their lives, which is nearly nine times the national average. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports that the risk of attempting suicide is especially severe for transgender or gender nonconforming people because they suffer discrimination and violence.
Researchers from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention also found that being recognized as transgender by other people likely makes transgender individuals a target of more discrimination, putting them at greater risk.
Published: Oct. 23, 2014 - Volume 13 - Issue 28