Public schools across New York state continue to demonstrate a fundamental ineptitude when it comes to addressing the needs of transgender and gender nonconfirming students, according to a new report issued today by the New York Civil Liberties Union.
"My daughter was kicked and stepped on, and her hair was pulled, all while students shouted at her that she was a boy," said the mother of one NYC student named Jessie. "People knock over her tray during lunch." Jessie is a public school first grader, who likes parachute pants and army clothes and action figures. She has not yet spoken explicitly about her gender identity. Jessie's mom claims that bullying has been relentless this year, despite her repeated attempts to file bullying reports with the school's administration.
Sara, a 15-year-old student, lives upstate. Her mother Michelle told reporters during a conference call this morning, "There was so much bullying in the 9th grade that Sara had an emotional breakdown." One day, when Sara wore a wig to school, students taunted her, asking repeatedly, "Do you have a dick in your pants?" Michelle told reporters, "When I brought this incident to the school, they said there was nothing they could do."
The NYCLU report also includes many instances of teachers and administrators refusing to acknowledge students' preferred names and gender pronouns, and students barred from their preferred bathrooms and locker rooms. "Many students avoid going to the restroom throughout the entire school day," said Lauren Frederico, who authored the report. "They are limiting their water intake, holding it for hours, and putting their health at risk."
Locke is a 17-year-old student from a rural town upstate. "I wanted my transgender status to remain unknown. When I was 14, I went to my principal's office, and I asked to be called 'Locke,' and to be called 'he' or 'him,'" he said. "The principal... said no. [The school] wouldn't even agree to call me a he."
"Many students aren't openly transgender," said Frederico. "Schools out [these] kids."
The Dignity Act, instated in 2010, explicitly prohibits gender-based discrimination in all New York public schools, in addition to discrimination based on disability, race, and religion. However, the NYCLU is pointing to a failure in execution: school administrators and teachers don't have adequate training, and fail to respectfully address, much less protect, nonconforming students.
Under state law, every public school in the state is required to have a designated Dignity Act coordinator, whose job it is to mediate instances of gender-based harassment. But according to a 2013 survey of New York City public schools, only 9% of students even knew who their coordinator was. And in 2013, about a third of the public schools in New York failed to report instances of gender-based harassment, despite the fact that the law requires such reports. (According to the limited data, New York schools documented 24,478 incidents of harassment in 2012-13, 19% of which were related to gender stereotypes.)
"Most school staff receive little-to-no training on issues related to gender identity and expression. We have heard them ask repeatedly for the state to step in," Frederico said. In addition to comprehensive training for all school administrators in the state, the NYCLU is calling for all bathrooms and locker rooms to correspond with gender identity. They'd also like the state education department to get serious about collecting data on instances of harassment, and make sure that students can make confidential harassment reports.
Last March, the New York City DOE introduced a set of Transgender Student Guidelines, which address many of the grievances outlined in today's report. However every policy outlined by the city—from updating student IDs to allowing transgender students to participate in gender-specific team sports—is a suggestion, not a requirement.
In the short term, NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman is hoping that the new report will spur students to take action on a case-by-case basis. "I think this report will help empower young people and their parents to file lawsuits challenging the denial of access to education," she said.
UPDATE: Dennis Tompkins, a spokesman for the New York State Education Department, issued the following statement:
The New York State Education Department is developing a guidance document for districts to foster educational environments that are safe, and free from discrimination for all students, specifically transgender and gender nonconforming students. We have and will continue to work with several advocates to develop and finalize the guidance document before the start of the 2015-2016 school year.