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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Transgender Protections: Moral Purpose or Moral Judgment?

By Peter DeWitt — February 26, 2017 4 min read
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By now, everyone knows that the Trump administration rescinded the protections of transgender students brought about by the Obama administration. This decision, although somewhat expected by many, goes against the promises Trump made during his campaign about protecting all students and ensuring a high quality education for all.

Multiple news outlets, both respected and the ones Trump refers to as fake news, reported that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was against the decision to rescind the protections but was forced into it by President Trump and attorney general Jeffrey Sessions. Sessions has been very vocal about his desire to strip the rights of the LGBT community. Why? I’m sure he has many reasons that make sense to him.

Eliza Byard, Executive Director of the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) released a statement saying,

Supports for transgender students in K-12 schools change and save lives, and hurt no one. President Trump's reversal of federal guidance affirming Title IX protections in schools undermines the settled expectations and protections afforded by federal law, hurts transgender students and impedes the progress we have made creating safer and more inclusive learning environments for all.

Byard is correct. These protections hurt no one. Byard went on to say,

Research has consistently shown that transgender students are more likely to face severe violence and discrimination at school than their peers, and at greatly increased risk of suicide and self-harm as a result. GLSEN's National School Climate Survey has shown that 76 percent of transgender students felt unsafe at school simply because of their gender. We also know that transgender students who are allowed simply to be themselves at school are as healthy and happy and successful as their peers. Rescinding guidance designed to help schools help them makes zero sense.

As others continue to protest the decision, and the courts start to work all of this out, I would prefer to focus on what administrators will do. Regardless of what President Trump believes, or what former President Obama sought out to do, it is administrators who have this issue sitting in their lap. It is a case of moral purpose versus moral judgment.

Moral Purpose
International education system’s expert Michael Fullan writes,

You don't have to be Mother Theresa to have moral purpose. Some people are deeply passionate about improving life (sometimes to a fault, if they lack one or more of the other four components of leadership: understanding of the change process, strong relationships, knowledge adding, and coherence making among multiple priorities.) Others have a more cognitive approach, displaying less emotion, but still being intensely committed to betterment. Whatever one's style, every leader, to be effective, must have and work on improving his or her moral purpose.

If leaders truly care about all of the students walking into their school buildings, they will follow through on protections of transgender students, as well as any minoritized population that walks into school.

  • How can any child learn if they don’t feel safe?
  • If your child came home saying they were bullied, harassed or exposed to violence, wouldn’t you want to do something about it?
  • Is it ok that certain students never get the opportunity to reach their full potential?
  • Is it ok to lower the expectations we have as ourselves as leaders or teachers when it comes to meeting the needs of students just because we judge them morally?

Exposure to all students, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender expression, religious beliefs or differing abilities benefits all students. That exposure helps students understand diversity, which is the same diversity they will experience in college or the workplace. Perhaps that understanding will lead to less banning and more understanding.

In many states, there are already protections in place for LGBT students, as well as minoritized populations, and they are indeed education law. Minoritized students are those students who are made to feel as if they are in the minority, as opposed to having the true equality and equity they deserve.

Unfortunately, and perhaps this is a dirty little secret in some schools, those protections that schools have as a part of their board policies and codes of conduct get ignored unless a student, teacher, leader or parent makes them a priority. Some schools have long had a don’t ask, don’t tell policy.

For example, New York State schools are charged to abide by the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), which requires all schools to have board policies and student codes of conduct in place that protected students against harassment based on their religious beliefs, gender expression, sexual orientation, size and differing abilities. However, to date not all schools in New York State abide by that law that has been in place for the last 5 years.

In the End
We have a moral obligation to make sure that all students feel welcomed, safe and supported in our schools. That is what school climate is all about. When we, as leaders or teachers, do not fully protect our students using board policies and codes of conduct, we are telling a population of students that they are not welcome in our schools.

The images on our walls, curriculum we teach, common language we use, and the safeguards we have in place are supposed to represent all of our students. Unfortunately they do not. This is not just an LGBT issue, but an issue that has been taking place for a very long time. Many times the history students learn about in classrooms is not representative of our very diverse population in the United States. It’s written from one point of view.

The issues we face in society are the very issues we should be exploring with students. We should provide all of the information they need and allow them to come to their own conclusions. However, that will never happen if all students aren’t being allowed to have the same voice. The Trump administration may have rescinded protections, which many people will fight, but it doesn’t mean that school leaders and teachers have to rescind the same protections. We have a moral obligation to protect all students.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Dignity for All; Safeguarding LGBT Students (Corwin Press) and Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (September, 2016. Corwin Press/Learning Forward). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.