Howard County schools has been working in recent months on a set of guidelines designed to support transgender and gender nonconforming students.

The guidelines, made for school principals with the expectation they will share them with assistant principals, teachers, counselors, volunteers and other staff, include topics such as student privacy, records, use of names and pronouns, restroom use, gender-segregated activities, sports, dress codes and clubs.

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The guidelines note that all information related to transgender and nonconforming students is kept confidential within the school system.

Superintendent Michael Martirano said there was “no real trigger” that led to the guidelines, but rather a sense that “I walk in here every day knowing that my primary job is to protect our children.”

Michael Martirano, Howard County schools superintedent
Michael Martirano, Howard County schools superintedent (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

“There is still great evidence of racism every day, sexism every day and homophobia — all these things are are alive and well,” he said. “Our job as a system is to define a value system that says: ‘No, we are not going to tolerate that here.’”

While the guidelines are technically new, the principles and standards have been around for years in various school systemwide policies.

For example, Policy 1010, Anti-Discrimination, prohibits any discrimination on the basis of race, color, creed, immigration status, sex, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, religion, disability, national origin, genetic information, marital status, and veteran or socioeconomic status in the education program or workplace. The policy was adopted in 1990.

Martirano said that policy is “where I lead from every day…. When we are talking about transgender students and staff members it falls in the same category of anti-discrimination. If someone is discriminated against it is my job to protect them.”

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Caroline Walker, the system’s executive director of program innovation and student well being, said the guidelines are to ensure Howard’s educators and professionals are armed with resources to have conversations with transgender and gender nonconforming students and their families.

“Many times in my experience when someone from student services is working with a transgender student, it's the first transgender person they have interacted with, or the second or the third, [so] to some extent we had do some education,” Walker said.

In January the GLSEN, formerly known as the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, released data from its 2017 National School Climate Survey suggesting that Maryland schools in general are “not safe for most lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer, middle and high school students.”

Conducted every two years, the GLSEN survey creates “state snapshots” of issues related to gender identity. From the 2017 survey, 41 states and Puerto Rico were given fact sheets, having at least 100 students from each state participate in the national polling.

“The state snapshots were created so that advocates from the state level could use that data for policy and say: ‘Within my state LGBTQ students... are not safe and here are the reasons why,’” said Nhan Truong, a senior research associate for GLSEN.

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Maryland students — 82 percent of them — reported they regularly hear homophobic remarks in school and 70 percent reported regularly hearing negative remarks about transgender people, according to GLSEN’s report. Statewide, 54 percent of transgender students reported they were unable to use the restroom aligned with their gender and 48 percent were barred from using their chosen name or pronouns in school.

In Howard County, guidelines state that a student has the right to be addressed with a name and pronouns that corresponds to their gender identity. The system is “not required to use a student’s legal name and gender on non-official school records or documents.” Rather, a student’s preferred name and gender will be used, according to the guidelines. An example of a non-official document is a diploma.

Transgender students who attend Howard schools have the option to use the school bathroom of their choosing, whether it is the restroom that matches their gender identity or “a safe and adequate alternative.” The guidelines also state that every student should have access to a locker room that matches their gender identity. Transgender students may be offered another space, however, with an alternative arrangement.

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Students will also be ensured equal opportunity to participate in school activities and programs. Referencing the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, the Howard guidelines spell out that transgender students are allowed to participate in school sports of either their birth gender, a gender they have transitioned to or their gender identity.

Truong said that when it comes to support resources for LGBTQ students in schools, the key components are a comprehensive anti-bullying policy, supportive educators, inclusive curriculum and access to a Gay-Straight Alliance Club. In the survey, 71 percent of Maryland students reported they have a GSA Club at their school; all 12 Howard high schools have a GSA Club, though some are referred to as Sexuality and Gender Alliance, Genders and Sexuality Alliance or Gay-Straight Alliance.

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Troung said students attending a school with a clear policy or guidelines regarding gender identity say they feel greater belonging to the school community and were less likely to miss school.

Bill Barnes, chief academic officer for Howard County schools, said people have reached out with viewpoints on the issue, mostly in support of all students.

At a meeting last month of the Community Advisory Council — all-volunteer education advocacy group — some community members expressed concern with allowing transgender students to use the gender-related bathroom of their choosing and allowing students to join a sports team of their gender identity. Barnes said some comments came from “the most extreme, preposterous space … [for example] thinking about predatory behavior in the bathroom.”

“They aren’t thinking about all it takes for a child to confront their own identity, to grapple with it, work with a counselor, with their family to a point with conviction,” he said.

Walker said, “it’s hard for every adolescence to figure out where they belong, but especially when you're thinking through ‘Is this how my family thinks I should be? Is this how my teammate thinks of me?’

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“As a school community we need to make every student welcomed,” she said.

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Other school districts are also addressing gender identity, either as a separate policy or wrapped into broader anti-discrimination guidelines.

Baltimore City schools is in the process of developing a policy, according to a schools spokeswoman. A draft, available on the school’s website, covers sex-based discrimination. Similar guidelines exist in Montgomery, Carroll and Anne Arundel counties. Harford schools has a non-discrimination policy that supports transgender students. A spokesman for Baltimore County schools did not respond to requests for comment.

Anne Arundel schools spokesman Bob Mosier said that as more instances of transgender students came to the school system’s awareness, administration staff wanted to ensure teachers and other staff understood the expectation to supporting all students.

“Our intention is for our staff to meet [the students] where they are,” Mosier said. “You can’t do that without understanding the issue.”

Created in August 2016, Arundel’s guidelines generated both “support and outrage,” Mosier said, with most of the outrage surrounding restrooms. In response, “what we did was simply [state] our strategic plan, ‘Elevate all students, eliminate all gaps,’” he said.

“All means all, including transgender students,” he added.

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