How trans students — and their teachers — in some states are coping with a new school year and new laws

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This story was originally posted by The 19.

Anita Hatcher, a seventh-grade English teacher in the Florida Panhandle, worries about what this school year will bring for her transgender students.

She is not alone.

Trans students and their teachers in Florida, Alabama and Texas — three states where lawmakers and governors’ offices have been most vocal in efforts to restrict trans youth’s access to gender-affirming bathrooms and healthcare, in addition to educational restrictions and sports bans – are worried about what the new school year may bring.

“I’m very worried the first time I take a written test and someone’s name doesn’t match what’s on my list,” said Hatcher, whose classes began Aug. 10. She is also concerned about respecting the names and identities of her trans students. – without taking them out. “How do I appeal to a student, show them respect, be fair, not overwhelm them, involve them in class discussion? »

Florida’s law restricting classroom discussions of gender and sexuality, dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by advocates, went into effect in early July. He faces an Equality Florida lawsuit backed by attorneys general from 16 states. While the bill’s explicit limitations apply to students through third grade, additional language in the bill mandates “age and developmentally appropriate” lessons, which advocates say may affect LGBTQ+ students in higher grades.

For Hatcher, fear among Florida teachers is palpable and is even driving some educators to leave, exacerbating a teacher shortage. Her school follows guidelines set by Leon County, and she fears that even policies meant to be inclusive will exclude her transgender students. If a trans child uses a locker room or restroom that matches their gender identity, which the school district emphasizes students are allowed to do, parents of their peers can be notified in writing: “A student who is open about their gender identity can be in your child’s physical education class or in an extracurricular or extracurricular activity. »

READ MORE: Transgender kids can play women’s sports in Utah after ruling

This note would not be sent if the family has requested confidentiality of their child’s identity. and accepted other accommodation “which will ensure the privacy of all students”. The guide does not define what such accommodations would be offered. Hatcher said no training was given to teachers or staff at his school on the guide.

“Not all the kids are home until they’re in school,” said Hatcher, who was one of the plaintiffs in Equality Florida’s original Don’t Say Gay lawsuit. With some of her own students, she learned about their LGBTQ+ identity before their parents. The Leon County School District did not respond to a request for comment.

In Alabama, a toilet bill that also took effect July 1 prohibits public schools from allowing classroom discussions about sexual orientation or gender identity for children in kindergarten through the fifth year. A separate Alabama law requires school counselors and teachers to notify parents if their child comes out as trans or gender non-conforming.

Harleigh Walker, a 15-year-old trans girl at Auburn High School, begins grade ten this year. She worries about the mental health and safety of her other transgender friends, especially those who haven’t dated their parents – and what might happen if her friends accidentally say the wrong thing around a teacher or teacher. ‘an advisor.

“I just don’t want to see a whole bunch of these trans kids being exposed to their parents,” she said.

Walker began classes on August 9. So far, she hasn’t seen any incidents around access to toilets or changing rooms and feels optimistic. But, she also expects her school and others to become stricter as the year progresses.

When asked what policies have been put in place in response to recent anti-trans laws, Auburn High School Principal Shannon Pignato said in a statement that “educators are not required to ‘reaching out to parents’, but ‘if a student leaks information, open communication between stakeholders is considered a priority, especially when it comes to mental health and safety. Pignato did not respond when she was asked what information or stakeholders she was referring to.

READ MORE: Transgender children in Philadelphia schools and youth organizations now protected by non-discrimination law

In Alabama and Florida, teachers are tasked with figuring out where to draw the line in response to new state laws as their school districts update policies and grapple with what those laws mean in practice.

A 13-year-old non-binary transmale student in Birmingham, Alabama, who asked to remain anonymous because he feared public speaking would worsen current bullying, said his physical education teacher would not allow any student to use the changing rooms during lessons. — because he wants to use the boys’ locker room.

“It’s really stupid and they make a big deal out of it,” he said, adding that the situation made him feel isolated by a teacher who had otherwise been supportive and tried to use his correct name and pronouns. . The decision was explained to him privately during their second PE class, he said. When he went to his adviser to sort out the matter, she explained that the school, which is privately run, planned to have further discussions about what to do.

Joseph Rawlins, who teaches special education at Atlantic Coast High School, a public school in Jacksonville, Fla., also oversees the school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance. The GSA meets regularly virtually on Microsoft Teams and in person twice a month – with its first meeting this year scheduled for Thursday.

Under new state laws, Rawlins must figure out how to affirm and protect trans students in his classroom — as well as within a club meant to give LGBTQ+ students a place to be themselves and speak freely. of their identity.

“What good is a GSA if I can’t make it a safe space? ” he said. It is difficult to know what is and what is not safe to share for students who do not want to go out with their family or the rest of the school, including their name and pronouns. It is also unclear when teachers are required to call home to report a student, although its district in Duval County finalized new rules in its student support guide.

In a draft of Duval County school rules released in May and revised by The 19th, student ID cards can be updated to reflect the name of a student who affirms their gender identity – after the parent has been informed. The same rule applies to class lists, yearbooks and school newspapers. The Atlantic Coast principal declined to comment on school policies over email.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia hosts the world’s largest trans wellness conference and tries to turn the rhetoric on trans mental health on its head

The line that must be crossed to alert a student’s family, in Rawlins’ mind, is if a student requests a roster change or to have their yearbook updated with their preferred name — anything that has a record. digital or paper. Understanding the rules of engagement is even more difficult given that the law only took effect a month ago, but Rawlins said he feels supported by his school and the district to try to unravel the mess.

Now, when students email teachers before classes start explaining their name and pronouns — and when that name doesn’t match the legal name on the class list — they’re potentially incriminating themselves, Rawlins said. . Before classes started on August 15, a student sent an email to eight teachers alerting them to his name and pronouns – and made it clear that his family could not bear to address him that way, Rawlins said.

“Well, now what do we do?” Because a child sent through a public school email system, it is now common knowledge that he wants to use these pronouns, he wants to use this name. But they don’t want parents to know about it,” he said.

These scenarios prompt teachers like Rawlins to ask their students if they are sure they want to follow through on what they are asking for – to be recognized and affirmed in their gender identity – and if they understand what the law says. from Florida.

“It’s just difficult,” he said. “For some of them it’s fine, because they have families that support them. For these children, things are going pretty well this year. … But for those who don’t have a supportive home, it’s difficult right now.

In Texas, the legislature is out of session after introducing more than 40 bills targeting transgender youth last year, only one of which passed. And at the local level, efforts to restrict education are progressing. A school district in Grapevine, Texas, recently voted to require students to use restrooms dictated by their sex assigned at birth and to encourage teachers to ignore student requests for the use of their current pronouns, reports the Texas Tribune.

For a 16-year-old trans girl with a supportive family entering her freshman year in the Austin Independent School District, this year marks feeling more confident – ​​in her sense of style, having more friends and to be more able to express themselves post-transition during pandemic school closures. She asked to remain anonymous due to Texas’ attempts to criminalize families who seek gender-affirming care for trans minors.

She feels safe at her school largely because of the support of her teachers and friends — and because few people she knows at school know or care that she’s transgender. This year, teachers asked students to fill in a Google document with their pronouns and preferred name – and if these are the same at home and at school. It helped her feel comfortable.

“I worry about other kids who aren’t as well off or as privileged as me,” she said. “If there’s a child and they’re trans, but they haven’t dated their parents or changed their gender marker or their name…it’s hard to tell. go through school while being validated and just respected.”

Jason Stanford, spokesperson for the Austin School District, said the district aims to accommodate LGBTQ+ and trans students, who should be able to use restrooms based on their gender identity, or single stall facilities if this student is worried about bullying.

“If I have to choose between an angry parent and making a child feel safe, me and everyone I work with is going to make the same choice,” he said. “I think too often in these discussions we center the emotional safety of adults at the expense of children.”

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