School support for transgender students is a critical matter, says Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders (SMYAL) Programs Director Adalphie Johnson. In partnership with District schools, churches and non-profits she works to support, provide and implement safe spaces and developmentally appropriate programming for LGBTQ youth.
“Just think of some aspect of who you are that is important,” said Johnson. “If you’re not able to walk in your identity because you’re afraid of being bullied, rejected or killed, it really is a matter of life and death.”
According to the District’s 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 13.5 percent of high school students attempted suicide one or more times; that number rises to 48.7 percent among transgender high school peers. Over 1.4 million people in the US identify as transgender with a larger percentage of these in the younger age groups (UCLA Williams Institute, 2016).
Students experience many different environments in their daily lives, Johnson said, and all of these should be affirming of who they are. But school has a special role to play. “Teachers and school officials have more access to our young people than their families do in a given day,” Johnson said. “I would just say this from experience: some of our teachers know the young people better than their parents know them.”
Knowing that, Johnson said, schools have a particular responsibility to affirm and support transgender students and provide them and school communities with the resources they need.
What guides the decisions of District schools as they fulfill these responsibilities?
Some schools have full policy documents. In 2015, DC Public Schools (DCPS) released the first version of its DCPS Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Policy Guidance which clarifies what schools in the system legally need to do to provide an affirming environment. While students lead any process linked to their identities, a supplementary internal document provides guidance to teachers and staff to guide them through questions they may confront or need to ask of students. These include confirming the student’s preferred pronoun and that they have access to appropriate bathroom facilities.
Tara Cheston is a specialist with the DCPS LGBTQ and Sexual Health Program which works to ensure education and training are provided for staff and the school community. This includes annual orientation for each school’s LGBTQ Liaison, a person trained to provide nuanced support based on a student’s individual needs. In 2019-2020, there was a liaison at every middle and high school, and at half the elementary schools.
School-specific training is also offered to staff and teachers that addresses issues such as language and how to use incidents when students use gendered or sexuality-specific terminology in inappropriate ways as opportunities for growth and learning rather than correction.
Last spring, DCPS moved to create virtual safe spaces and ways in which students could safely share their preferred pronouns with the class. Some students are working from homes that are not affirming, Cheston said, and liaisons had to figure out unique ways of checking in with them to ensure they are okay.
Education goes beyond staff and liaisons, Cheston said. Program coordinators have developed a list of books that provide a window for LGBTQ representation for schools to place in libraries and classrooms. Books such as I am Jazz, the story of a transgender child based on the real-life experience of Jazz Jennings, allow students to see the representations of non-conforming gender identities. They also provide a way to discuss questions around gender identity.
Questioning Our Own Assumptions
Capital City Charter School (100 Peabody St NW) has a guiding document for teachers to reference when a student expresses feelings around gender and sexual identities. The public charter school serves students from pre-K3 to grade 12. “There are a lot of sensitivities, and having practices as a school are really important, because there are a lot of places that a school can get this wrong,” said Head of School Karen Dresden. “You want to be really careful about who is supposed to know certain things, and making sure that student desires, such as name and pronouns, are known by teachers.”
The school has a resource document to help staff and teachers navigate questions and be clear about how to refer to the student and who should know what, and when.
Dresden was the school’s founding principal when it opened 20 years ago. Over that time, she said, students have provided the impetus for staff to look at school practices, examining them for gendered assumptions. Part of the work they have done is to examine the beliefs and bias behind school practices, a way to understanding that the gender binary traditional in many schools not only wasn’t serving some students well, it was also really harmful. Often, the harm caused was unseen, “You might not even know who those students are, who may be grappling with their own identity,” Dresden said.
For instance, for years it had been traditional for girls to wear white robes and boys to wear blue at high school graduation. “Then we had some students say, you know, ‘I don’t really feel comfortable picking one color,’” Dresden recounted, “and then we had to really ask ourselves, why are we doing this?” Practices such as having elementary school students form separate lines for boys and girls were jettisoned as having no rational basis and forcing children to gender identify for no reason. “Sometimes it really just takes having an inclusive lens and learning more so that we can really examine our own practices and make changes,” Dresden said.
The school works to provide students with support in navigating their own path, being careful not to tell them what to think, but to provide resources to help students grapple with potential next steps.
Dresden said that she has also had conversations over the years with families who have strong religious beliefs. Sometimes these families voice initial opposition to the ways gender and sexuality are discussed at the school. “But when I really talk to families about how this is really about being inclusive and accepting of all students —well, that is usually what people’s religions are about,” she said. “Families are supportive of that.”
What is key, Dresden said, is ensuring that the school is a safe place for students. “We want to affirm our students for who they are, and that they feel comfortable, respected and supported as part of our community,” she said. “That’s not just about gender —that’s about everything, and it’s linked to every aspect of identity.”
A Culture of Affirmation
Prioritizing a culture of affirmation and inclusion is part of the holistic approach to thinking about issues of diversity and inclusion at Capitol Hill Day School (CHDS), said Head of School Jason Gray. This includes questions of race and ethnicity as well as gender and sexuality. “It can’t just be about one element of diversity or identity,” Gray said. “It has to be about all of it, to allow for those hard conversations.”
CHDS (210 South Carolina Ave. SE) is an independent, progressive school serving pre-k through eighth grade. Students have a central role in leading their education and are encouraged to be a guiding light in their own self-expression.
As such, Gray said CHDS does not have a policy so much as a practice. The school provides support to a gender non-conforming child, working with the family and making references to resources as appropriate.
Gray said the school allows the child to bring forward their voice and identity, but also recognizes that it will often happen slowly, through developmentally-appropriate ways. “Sometimes children make choices that aren’t about gender identity or expression,” Gray noted, using the choice of toys such as dolls or trucks as an example. “As a child continues to develop, those decisions can become more intentional, and they often come to us to indicate that they are.”
As such, it is important to listen closely to the student. “The practice is giving voice to the child in terms of identity and expression,” he said, “and working very closely and in partnership with families to support the children, and to allow for their voice to come forward in our community.”
One way CHDS tries to make that possible is by creating the space in which a student can raise these topics. Since many students enter the school in pre-kindergarten, the school is able to cultivate dialogue about differences at a very young age, conversations that become more complex as individuals grow and develop.
Gray said that over time, he has come to see the safe space created by the community as a “brave space” as well, a place where students and members of the school community can discuss issues that are important to them, but that might be uncomfortable for others. “We strive to be an environment where we can have these conversations from a non-judgmental perspective,” he said, “and where we believe that everyone’s interests in participating are positive.”
That’s not to say that they get it right every time, Gray said. That is in part why the brave space is necessary. “We need to take time, in our commitment to education, to address bias and shortcomings and to work through community repair,” he said, saying part of the commitment to creating the kind of space and communication where a child can fully express all aspects of their identity is being willing to take the time and do the work.
SMYAL’s Johnson said that during these troubled times, these issues are even more important. Schools need to think about how they prioritize the needs of LGBTQ students as a whole, and how to meet them virtually.
Dresden agrees. “It’s a much bigger issue for all students,” she said. The work around these questions helps to shape student perceptions of their own gender and sexuality as they themselves move throughout their school careers, she said.
“I just don’t know how you don’t do it,” she said. “I see this as an issue that broadly impacts, really, everybody.”
For more about SMYAL programs and services, visit smyal.org. Learn about the guiding principles of CHDS at www.chds.org, about Capital City at https://www.ccpcs.org/ and see the DCPS LGBTQ Sexual Health program at dcps.dc.gov/page/lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-and-questioning-student-engagement.