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Districts Struggle to Address Emerging Issues With LGBT Students

By Nirvi Shah — March 22, 2013 3 min read
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In Colorado, parents are suing a school district, which said their son, who identifies as a girl, cannot use the girls’ bathroom at school. In California, the ACLU has sued a district over a ban on girls wearing tuxedos to prom. In Mississippi, students protested when a classmate who identifies as female was allowed to wear women’s clothing to her high school.

While just last year, a new survey by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network found that nationally, anti-LGBT language at school had dropped, schools appear to have issues needing tending to that go far beyond harassment and bullying.

(That isn’t to say the issue of harassment is solved. Looking closely at individual states from which that conclusion was drawn, students in some states, including Oregon and Maryland, indicate harassment and bullying are common.)

While the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights has been coming down hard on school districts where bullying and harassment of LGBT students have been mishandled or unaddressed, including in Tehachapi, Calif., and Anoka-Hennepin, Minn., newer issues, such as the Colorado case, are still being worked out locally.

In Colorado, the New York Times writes, the parents of 6-year-old Coy Mathis, born a boy, want Coy to be able to use the girls’ bathroom at his elementary school. Coy identifies as a girl. From the Times:

In December, however, when Coy, 6, was a few months into the first grade, the Mathises angrily pulled her out of school after being told that she could no longer use the girls’ bathroom but could instead use a gender-neutral restroom. A letter from a lawyer for the Fountain-Fort Carson school district explained that “as Coy grows older and his male genitals develop along with the rest of his body, at least some parents and students are likely to become uncomfortable with his continued use of the girls’ restroom.” Now, Coy’s case is at the heart of legal dispute that is likely to test Colorado’s anti-discrimination law, which expanded protections for transgender people in 2008.

Massachusetts recently issued guidance on how to work with transgender students. “Some students may feel uncomfortable with a transgender student using the same sex-segregated restroom, locker room or changing facility. This discomfort is not a reason to deny access to the transgender student,” the guidance says. “School administrators and counseling staff should work with students to address the discomfort and to foster understanding of gender identity, to create a school culture that respects and values all students.”

It goes on to recommend that districts include an appropriate number of gender-neutral restrooms, but consider that for Coy’s parents, this wasn’t an answer.

But accommodating students comes with its own challenges.

In Mississippi, a student at South Panola High School in Batesville recently came out and announced her transition to becoming female, WDAM reported. She was allowed to wear women’s clothing, but classmates protested because they said the exception was in violation of the school’s dress code.

The student handbook states, “Students will dress in conformity with accepted community standards. No student will dress in a manner which will cause other students to be distracted. Students are also expected to wear clothing in keeping with their gender. Sweat pants or athletic gear are not allowed,” the TV station reported.

“How distracting is it for you walk down the hallway and see a boy you’ve known since kindergarten, now a girl, wearing high heels, walking,” senior Logan Roberson told the station.

And just this week, the ACLU of Southern California told the Hesperia Unified School District that it will sue the district over discrimination of LGBT students, including a ban on allowing girls to wear tuxedos to the prom.

Many of the problems are at Sultana High School, the ACLU said, where announcements about Gay-Straight Alliance meetings have been truncated and the prom-clothing issue has erupted.

As the Los Angeles Times reported, interim Superintendent David McLaughlin said in a statement that the allegations are “deeply concerning,” and the district is looking into the issues.

Student expressions, via clothing or other methods, are legally protected, the ACLU attorneys contend.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.