The Palo Alto school district is considering a new comprehensive policy that would take a more intentional, inclusive approach to ensuring the protection of the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming students.
The school board's policy review committee (BPRC) discussed the proposed policy at its first meeting of the school year on Monday morning. The policy, titled "Gender Identity and Access," is the product of more than two years of work by the district's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Questioning (LGBTQQ) committee, which is made up of administrators, staff, teachers, parents and representatives from local community organizations such as Outlet, a LGBTQ program at Adolescent Counseling Services.
The proposed policy seeks to "promote the healthy development and safety of all students including transgender students by maximizing inclusion and social integration while minimizing exclusion and stigmatization," according to the proposed policy itself.
The LGBTQQ committee crafted the policy based on state and federal law as well as other school districts' existing policies, drawing primarily from the Berkeley Unified School District. The Berkeley school board passed its policy in late 2013.
The San Francisco Unified School District adopted a trans-affirmative policy more than a decade ago. And the Los Angeles Unified School District adopted a policy in 2005.
In June of 2014, the Palo Alto Unified did adopt a new administrative regulation to protect transgender students following the passage of AB1266, a landmark California law that ensures transgender students have access to facilities and activities, especially sports, based on their gender identity. The new law went into effect on Jan. 1, 2014.
The administrative regulation on nondiscrimination/harassment includes a section that outlines several rights for transgender and gender non-conforming students the right to privacy as well as support during a social transition at school, to determining their own gender identity, to access facilities and activities based on their gender, to changing their name and pronouns in student records and to have district staff address them by their preferred name and pronouns.
The LGBTQQ committee has been working since before the passage of AB1266 to develop a policy that was more comprehensive and inclusive than this administrative regulation, particularly to protect students who identify as non-binary, defined in the proposed policy as "an individual whose gender identity or gender expression falls outside or in between the category of male or female."
On Monday, a parent who serves on the LGBTQQ committee and has a transgender elementary-aged child in the district, spoke to the critical impact of having a comprehensive policy in place. This parent and others who spoke at the meeting requested anonymity due to privacy and safety concerns for their children.
The parent cited the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network's 2013 National School Climate Survey," which found that LGBT students in schools with a comprehensive policy that "specifically enumerates both sexual orientation and gender identity and expression" were less likely to hear negative remarks about gender expression 41.7 percent compared to 57.6 percent of students who attend schools with a generic policy. Students at schools with a comprehensive policy were also more likely to report that staff intervene when hearing homophobic remarks, the parent noted.
Although a majority of students surveyed had an anti-bullying policy at their school, only 10 percent reported that their school had a comprehensive policy in place.
The proposed policy considered Monday requires schools to accept a student's "asserted gender identity" and call them by their preferred name and pronouns. The National Climate Survey found that 42 percent of transgender students had been prevented from using their preferred name.
Under the new policy, schools would not be allowed to request any medical or mental health diagnosis or require a treatment plan to have a student's gender identity recognized. Students are also not required to give their schools a court-ordered name or gender change in order to have their requested name and gender identity recognized.
Though teachers and staff are legally required to use a student's preferred name and pronouns, changing that information in the school district's records system has historically proved difficult for Palo Alto transgender students, particularly those who might not have the support of their parents and are not yet 18 years old. Seeing one's legal name and gender in places like roll sheets, Schoology or school IDs can be traumatic for transgender students.
The school district just this month implemented a change within its online student information system, Infinite Campus, to include new fields to differentiate between legal name and gender and preferred name and gender.
Yet even when names and pronouns are changed in school records, there are other areas where legal names and genders might appear and potentially "out" students, the policy notes: "pre-printed labels, standardized tests, student IDs or library cards, lunch tickets, school photos, notices from the main office, attendance slips, grade books, posted lists of student names, lesson plans, seating charts and roll sheets used by substitute teachers, and any other places where students' names are commonly written."
The policy also urges schools to avoid separating students by gender in the classroom and other activities, like the formation of teams in physical education class or selecting dance partners.
Under the new policy, the district would maintain an official, permanent student record with the student's legal name and gender that appears on the student's birth certificate. The policy urges schools to keep this record in a secure location to protect student privacy. If a student or parent presents the school with documentation of a court-ordered legal name and/or gender change, the school must then change the official student record in a timely manner, according to the policy.
Schools would also be required to honor transgender students who transition after graduation and to change their diploma or transcript to their current name and gender.
The policy also instructs school personnel to not accidentally "out" students who might not be out in other settings or with their parents.
"Care must be taken to protect student privacy," the proposed policy reads. "School personnel should not assume that a student who is 'out' in some contexts (e.g. within a classroom) is 'out' everywhere (e.g. on a sports team). School personnel should also not assume that a student who is 'out' now (e.g. in middle school) would still want to be 'out' in the future (e.g. high school)."
Students who might socially transition in elementary or middle school might decide to do what many families describe as going "stealth," or keeping their transgender identity private at new schools later on.
Another parent with a transgender child in the district noted on Monday that many students don't decide to socially transition at school because they don't feel safe doing so. Students who don't conform to gender norms whether that means a student who identifies as transgender or a boy who likes to wear dresses are subject to more bullying and harassment, the parent said.
The National Climate Survey found that compared to other LGBT students, transgender, genderqueer, and other non-cisgender students face the most hostile school climates.
"We like to think that here in Palo Alto we're a highly educated, liberal place," the parent said. "I think probably you know we're not completely immune, but just through my work as an ally I have come to know of several situations at several elementary schools where kids have had issues," some from other students who are "confused and curious" but others who are "mean-spirited," the parent said.
Another parent described difficulty preparing Palo Alto High School staff in advance of their child's recent transition, particularly ensuring access to a private single-stall bathroom. In the past, most transgender or gender non-conforming students in the district have been given a key to use single-stall staff or office bathrooms.
Some Palo Alto school sites, including both high schools, are now in the process of converting some of their staff bathrooms to "gender-neutral" restrooms with an "occupied/unoccupied" lock so students don't have to potentially out themselves by asking for a key or having to explain themselves to a staff member who might not be aware of why they have a key.
These bathrooms are also available to any student who might require increased privacy, not just transgender or gender non-conforming students.
The parents in attendance Monday urged board members to think about the policy as a way to systemically require more proactive provision of accommodations for transgender and gender non-conforming students and as a first step toward further education and training around LGBTQ issues.
"This policy is important, but it's only a piece of what's needed to create a safe environment for our LGBTQQ students," the parent of the transgender elementary-aged student said.
Members of the LGBTQQ committee have said one of their priorities this year will be to advocate for enhanced teacher and staff training and the introduction of more LGBTQ-specific curriculum in Palo Alto Unified.
Currently, new teachers receive about four hours of training through Gender Spectrum, an Oakland-based organization that provides gender education and training, and Outlet when they are hired, according to the district. Some staff have also attended a Human Rights Campaign Foundation conference around LGBTQ students' inclusion, safety and well-being.
The district recently submitted a request to Gender Spectrum to provide more training in the district, according to Student Services Coordinator Brenda Carrillo, who heads the LGBTQQ committee.
The LGBTQQ committee is also developing a resource guide for the community with additional information and guidance for parents on how to answer students' questions around these issues.
The two members of the school board who serve on the policy review committee, Ken Dauber and Heidi Emberling, responded positively to the draft policy, offering only several edits to some of the language.
What the policy makes clear, Dauber said, is a "fundamental commitment to nondiscrimination and non-harassment and that doesn't require balancing against other interests. It's a commitment that has to be honored and exemplified.
"I think one of the concerns that I've heard expressed is that absent this kind of guidance, we get into a discussion about balancing where balancing isn't appropriate because we're talking about the rights of children to an education free of discrimination."
Wendy He, the board policy review committee's new parent liaison, asked how the district would plan to disseminate such a policy along with the proper education that other parents in the community might need to fully understand it.
"If I were not in this meeting I would probably very much not understand and be against it immediately," she said. "It takes education."
Superintendent Max McGee suggested asking the PTA Council to distribute the policy, if approved, to parents. McGee said he also plans to discuss the topic with both high school faculties at an upcoming professional development day in October.
"We're also talking about a culture change that needs to happen across the community and that's not easy," Carrillo said. "The education piece will be very important not only within our staff and for our students but for all parents to have those really important conversations, I think, is something we're going to have to put some thought into."
Emberling said they would bring the proposed policy to the full board at its next meeting on Oct. 13.