School Districts Expand Gender Options To Include Transgender And Nonbinary Students

Meg Anderson

December 10, 2018

School can be fraught with gender norms. Just ask Addison Moore.

“If there was a trip, it’d be like: girls have to sleep with each other, boys have to sleep with each other. It’s like, well, where would I go?” Moore says. “There was always that legal standpoint of, well, even though this is your gender identity, because of what’s on your birth certificate, we can’t let you do everything you want to do.”

Moore, 19, uses the pronouns they and them and identifies as non-binary, which is when a person doesn’t identify exclusively as male or female. At the start of each school year, Moore would try to catch their teachers before class.

“I would try to make an effort to come out to my teachers so then they would know firsthand my gender and my name,” says Moore, who added that otherwise, “at the beginning of roll call, I’d have to be like, ‘Oh that’s not my name. I go by Addison.’”

Moore’s father encouraged them to keep at it, even if re-explaining repeatedly was exhausting. “He was like, ‘Be as you as possible, and the school will have to understand,’” Moore says.

Moore graduated in June, but as soon as next year, things could be different for other non-binary and transgender students. Nearly all public school districts in the D.C. region include gender identity as a protected class in their non-discrimination policies. Now, at least three local districts are beginning to tackle what supporting those students actually looks like, starting with the student enrollment form.

This school year, Arlington Public Schools added a new question on its form for students to indicate a designated gender, including male, female and “X.” Next year, DC Public Schools is adding “non-binary”as a gender option to its forms, and Alexandria City Public Schools will add a space for preferred name and gender identity in the district’s online form.

“From Alexandria’s perspective, the school board made the commitment a while ago. It’s a way to make sure we’re putting this into practice,” says Julie Crawford, chief of student services at Alexandria City Public Schools.

She says the new form will help teachers understand a student’s identity before they walk through the door, which could help avoid the “difficult situation” of potentially making a student’s identity public before they’re ready. The change, Crawford says, is going hand-in-hand with cultural competency training.

“What is okay to ask? What’s confidential that the student doesn’t need to be asked about? And if you aren’t someone who has great familiarity or feels uncomfortable, knowing who can help you in the school,” Crawford says.

Reporting Gender To State And Federal Agencies

Marya Runkle, a director of technology services at Alexandria City Public Schools, says the change to the form was complicated.

“We have certain legal responsibilities that are very specifically outlined from the state of Virginia Department of Education. So for gender currently, the state of Virginia says you have to report what matches their birth certificate,” Runkle says.

A spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Education, says school districts are responsible for “verifying the accuracy of the data they report” and that Virginia law requires students to submit birth certificates to enroll in the state’s public schools. Virginia follows federal reporting requirements, which list male or female as the two gender options.

The Maryland Department of Education also follows that federal requirement, but allows school systems to change a student’s gender on the official record, according to a spokesperson. It’s unclear how the non-binary option added to the DCPS enrollment forms will affect federal reporting. So far, the change at DCPS only affects traditional public schools, not the city’s charter schools. The Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), which oversees DCPS and the D.C. Public Charter School Board, said in a statement that they are “working with our public and public charter local education agencies on this important issue to ensure our policies and forms treat all students with the dignity and respect they deserve.”

At Alexandria City Public Schools, Runkle says the new form satisfies federal and state requirements, but also gives students space to indicate a preferred identity. The change to the Arlington Public Schools form does the same, according to a spokesperson for the district.

“We were able to figure out a way by thinking outside the box to say, ‘Okay, we have to still collect what the state requires, and what is the reason why we would not be able to collect an additional piece of information?’” Runkle says. “I can’t control that the state says we have to do data a certain way. However, it is within our bounds to set up an environment in which students are respected.”

Alexandria will also be able to adjust what information different people can see, by allowing the data to exist in two tiers. For example, on a field trip with parent chaperones, schools could theoretically print a roster that only shows preferred names.

“From a student experience perspective, what’s on their birth certificate is not what we want to use to drive their experience here in Alexandria City,” Runkle says.

‘It Means That The Student Is Being Counted’

The expansion of gender options — in Alexandria and elsewhere — is also about capturing data on who is attending school and how to support them, says David Aponte, co-chair of the Northern Virginia chapter of GLSEN, a national LGBTQ rights nonprofit.

“It means that the student is being counted. It makes things a lot easier for them in knowing that their identity is being considered, but also it makes it easier for organizations to say, ‘These are the students that you’re serving,’” Aponte says. “So, for a lot of school districts to start to do something like this is a real show of progress and an understanding that this is an issue they need to do something about.”

Addison Moore, who graduated from Paul Public Charter School, says things got better as high school progressed. School CEO Tracy Wright says they use the form required by OSSE, which has two gender options. Wright says the school “honors and respects the labels that our children have shared with us” and doesn’t use the enrollment forms to guide how they treat students.

“It was cool seeing some people step in the right direction of trying to make me feel comfortable towards my senior year, but still going through my first three years of high school was always a struggle,” Moore says, adding that having non-binary on student forms would have made the start of high school less stressful.

“If you don’t identify with male or female and you see those two options, you’re going to disconnect, because you’re going to know walking into this environment, you’re not a part of the group of people they try to work for,” says Moore, who now works for the local LGBTQ advocacy group SMYAL.

Moore says feeling included is especially important in the current political climate: The U.S. Department of Education has rolled backObama era protections for transgender students, and the Trump administration is considering defining gender as set at birth.

“Even now with a lot of the things going on that can make me feel a little bit scared to exist,” Moore says. “Someone, somewhere, is like, ‘No. We know you exist. And here’s how we’re showing you.’”

Moore says simply being allowed to exist — and to belong — can make a world of difference.

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