Acknowledging the growing visibility of transgender and gender non-conforming students, Maryland education officials issued guidelines four years ago suggesting how school districts could provide safe spaces for these students who often face harassment and violence in school.
The guidelines recommend simple steps such as modifying school forms to allow students to self-identify their preferred names and pronouns, and having teachers ask students privately how they want to be addressed in class.
Now, Baltimore is poised to take those protections a step further.
The city school board is considering a policy that would allow transgender students to use the names, pronouns and bathrooms that align with their gender identity. While many districts say they follow the state’s guidance around these issues, advocates say Baltimore would join only Frederick County in having a specific, progressive policy to address the estimated 2 percent of high school students who, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, identify as transgender.
There is power in an explicit policy, proponents say.
“These protections have to be stronger than a suggestion,” said Jabari Lyles, Baltimore’s LGBTQ affairs liaison. “They have to be mandated.”
The proposed policy comes at a vital time, supporters say. President Donald Trump’s administration has time and again signaled its intent to roll back rights for transgender people.
“Kids feel unsafe and unseen. They feel like they are actively being erased,” said Kimberly Mooney, Roland Park Elementary/Middle’s Gay Straight Alliance adviser. The policy is “really needed right now. If the federal government won’t protect them, we need to step up and do it ourselves.”
But those who oppose such policies argue it could put students at risk. The question of which bathroom transgender students should use has sparked backlash across the country. A Frederick County family sued the school system after it passed its policy in 2017, citing safety and privacy issues.
Baltimore schools’ draft sex-based discrimination policy includes provisions laying out a student’s right to be “referred to by their preferred name and by the pronouns that correspond with their gender identity.” Schools are directed to allow any transgender or gender non-conforming student to use the name and pronoun that reflects their identity, regardless of whether the child has changed their legal name.
It goes on to say that students would have access to facilities that correspond with their gender identity, including restrooms and locker rooms. Students who are uncomfortable using a gender-segregated facility would be provided a “safe non-stigmatizing alternative,” it states. Under the policy, students cannot be required to use a private restroom.
The draft policy does not address gender-specific schools. It remains unclear what would happen if, for example, a transgender girl wanted to attend the female-only Western High School.
The full school board is scheduled to discuss the policy next month. A vote would come later.
The draft document states that the prohibition of sex-based discrimination “extends to discrimination based on gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation and nonconformance to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity.”
The policy also lays out the steps for reporting a grievance, along with how complaints will be investigated.
Other Baltimore-area counties say they follow the state guidelines for supporting transgender students, or have used them as a starting point to develop their own guidelines. Howard County, for example, sent educators a 10-page document in October that included sections on understanding gender identity, explaining relevant terms, and instructions for allowing students to use the pronouns and bathrooms that align with their gender identity.
Montgomery County’s guidelines state that “where facilities are designated by gender, students must be provided access to gender-specific facilities ... in alignment with their consistently asserted gender identity.”
Patrick Harhai, a member of the mayor’s commission on LGBTQ affairs, said passing the policy in Baltimore should be a simple choice.
“This policy helps many and harms none,” he told the school board’s policy committee last month. “Why would we stop short of creating an institutional climate that protects the ability of students to find acceptance?”
Harhai teaches an Introduction to Queer Studies class at Bard High School Early College, a public charter in West Baltimore. He assigned students to read the proposed sex-based discrimination policy as homework. During a lively discussion about what the policy might mean to them, the teenagers pushed back on some aspects. They wondered aloud: Will people actually report instances of discrimination? How will students know it exists?
“As a trans student,” said 16-year-old Oliver Klapp, “I just want my peers to understand what’s going on. … People will come up and ask, ‘Do you have a penis yet? How do you go to the bathroom?’ I understand the curiosity, but that’s not something that’s appropriate to just go up and ask somebody.”
Klapp said these remarks come often from classmates. His other gender-nonconforming classmates described confusion about pronouns, as well.
Klapp and the other students aren’t sure a written policy will change much.
“Kids are going to be kids,” said one. (The Sun does not identify minors without parental consent.)
The students said the draft policy also doesn’t address other concerns about how LGBT kids are treated in school.
“They only talk about straight people sex in health class,” another said.
Harhai agrees the draft policy isn’t perfect. Still, this iteration of Baltimore’s sex-based discrimination policy has been years in the making. It faced obstacles in 2017, when the district’s legal team urged the school board to proceed slowly after their Frederick County counterparts were sued.
The lawsuit brought by an unnamed 15-year-old girl and her mother in August 2017 argued that Frederick’s policy violated the teenager’s right to bodily privacy. The suit, which decried the idea of children being forced to undress in front of members of the opposite sex, was later dropped.
Martha James-Hassan, the Baltimore school board’s policy committee chair, said she hasn’t heard much negative feedback on the policy. Society has gone through “profound” change in the last two years alone in terms of how transgender people are understood and accepted, she said.
Lyles said he’s not sensing the same hesitation from the city’s school board this time. School districts, he said, are looking to each other as guinea pigs on this issue.
“Does the world end or are we able to continue to run things? What we saw in Frederick was that there was a bogus lawsuit and then it was dropped and that’s it,” Lyles said. “School districts are peeking out of the closet — pun intended — and saying, all right, I think we can go ahead and do this.”
Another Maryland school district also was sued recently, but for the opposite reason. A transgender high school student sued the Talbot County Board of Education after he says he was barred from using the boys’ restroom and locker rooms. A judge ruled in March 2018 that Max Brennan — or any other transgender student — could not be barred from a sex-segregated space based on their gender identity.
It was a first-of-its-kind ruling in Maryland, and the district eventually settled with Brennan. He was given permanent access to restrooms, locker rooms and other school facilities designated for boys and men.
But the issue remains contentious. A former leader of the mayor’s LGBTQ commission was removed from the group after speaking out against transgender women. Julia Beck has said she’s concerned “predatory men” will call themselves female in order to get into women-only spaces, like restrooms.
“This puts every woman and girl at risk,” Beck said during an appearance on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News talk show.
A recent study from the UCLA law school found there is no validity to claims that gender-identity protections lead to privacy or safety violations in bathrooms. Such incidents, the study found, remain exceedingly rare.
The stakes for school districts taking this kind of action remain high, advocates say. For it to be truly successful, Lyles and others say, the policy needs to be accompanied by meaningful training.
In Frederick, training on their policy is part of teachers’ mandatory professional development. Everyone who interacts with students must know the standards, said Liz Barrett, a member of that county’s board of education. That means ensuring that substitute teachers have updated rosters with students’ preferred names, and that bus drivers and maintenance staff are also briefed on the policy’s expectations.
“If a student is mis-gendered..., it’s particularly hurtful,” Barrett said.
A 2017 national survey conducted by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, which champions LGBTQ issues in schools, found that 42 percent of transgender and gender nonconforming students had been prevented from using their preferred name or pronoun.
About 45 percent of LGBTQ students felt unsafe at school because of their gender expression, and more than a third missed at least one day of school in the previous month because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable. Nearly a fifth of these students reported that they felt they had to change schools because of the negative experiences.
More than half of LGBTQ students who reported being harassed or assaulted in school did not tell staff. And 60 percent of students who did report an incident said school staff did nothing in response or told the student to ignore it.
Those victimized for their gender expression reported higher levels of depression and lower self-esteem. More than a third of transgender students, the CDC found recently, attempt suicide.
“This policy is life or death,” Lyles said. “This policy is the difference between a student walking our hallways knowing they’re affirmed and supported exactly as they are, or a student walking our hallways at all.”