Forum

West Mifflin expands their student policy

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With a sweeping 8-0 vote, the West Mifflin Area School Board decided to increase support for transgender and gender nonconforming students. They proposed to direct its solicitor to collaborate with the board’s policy committee on a transgender and gender expansive student policy. The details on exact policies are still up for discussion at the board’s March meeting, but this vote is a step in the right direction.

The board is not alone in recognizing the need for a transgender and gender expansive student policy. This January, teachers, parents, and students from the West Mifflin area called for policies like the one that the Pittsburgh Public Schools District has upheld since 2016. Pittsburgh Public Schools’ approach includes protecting students’ privacy, allowing students to use sex-separated facilities that align with their gender identity, and using students’ preferred names and pronouns unless the law mandates the legal name and legal gender. These measures are the least schools can do to create a supportive environment conducive to learning.

What might transgender and gender expansive student policies look like for other schools? For starters, schools would have to make the message loud and clear: misgendering someone is not covered under “freedom of speech.” Even if a faculty member does not “agree” with being transgender (which then leads to the question of how one can “disagree” with another person’s identity?), they must agree to respect transgender students’ preferred names and pronouns. This seemingly simple gesture demonstrates that, at the very least, the student’s basic human dignity is recognized, which builds a healthier learning environment.

Allowing the use of sex-segregated facilities, such as bathrooms and locker rooms, might be met with more resistance. However, the consequences of having students use facilities solely on the basis of their gender assigned at birth have been shown to be more harmful than the alternative. Moreover, there is no correlation between bathroom safety and allowing transgender people to use gender facilities that align with their identity. On the other hand, a 2019 survey found that transgender students in schools that mandated use of gender facilities that align with sex assigned at birth reported higher rates of sexual assault than transgender students in schools that allowed them to use facilities based on gender identity (36 percent versus 25.9 percent). That number of sexual assaults is still abysmal and demonstrates a larger picture of anti-transgender rhetoric that is more pervasive than we may want to believe, but letting transgender people use facilities that match their gender identity is a start.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information states that transgender individuals globally are exposed to “widespread social stigma, discrimination, harassment, and physical and sexual abuse,” and public schools are no exception. In 2011, the National Center for Transgender Equality found that transgender or gender non-conforming K-12 students faced high rates of sexual violence (12 percent), physical assault (35 percent), and harassment (78 percent). In 15 percent of the cases of harassment, the victim had to leave the school. These traumatic incidents can follow anyone around for years and lead to worse health or academic performance. Coupled with higher rates of unemployment and further discrimination in the workforce, it’s even more pressing that schools provide transgender and gender non-conforming students a more stable educational background to help them develop more positively in these pivotal years. Such policies should also expand into bullying, harassment, and discrimination to protect students in case their gender identity or expression makes them a target of such incidents.

Even today, gay and transgender panic defense is legal in 31 states. The American Bar Association defines gay and trans panic defense as “a legal strategy which asks a jury to find that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is to blame for the defendant’s violent reaction, including murder.” This means that the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is a legal cop-out for the perpetrator’s action, letting them off the hook far too often. Washington state is the latest state to pass a ban, following the homicide of 17-year-old Nikki Kuhnhausen. This is just one example of the grim reality that many in the LGBT+ community face.

Growing up is hard enough. If there are any extra hurdles that we can remove, it’s only fair that we do. School policies protecting transgender students will not erase anti-LGBT+ rhetoric or policies, but change must begin somewhere. Educating the next generation on tolerance and acceptance is a start.