BY SHANNON E. WYSS — Public schools are facing several potential changes from the Trump administration. Among them are the shift toward increasing federal spending on private and charter schools through school voucher initiatives and the fears of undocumented immigrant parents impacting their children’s school attendance.
Another change concerns transgender and gender-nonconforming children and youth.
In February, President Donald Trump rescinded President Barack Obama’s guidance that Title IX protects such students. Under the Obama administration, schools were required to protect trans and gender-nonconforming students, call them by their chosen name and pronouns, and allow them to follow the dress code and use the bathroom associated with their gender identity.
Trans and gender-nonconforming students are still technically protected by Title IX under the category of sex. But there is no federal law expressly protecting individuals of any age from discrimination on the basis of actual or perceived gender identity and sexual orientation. And judges are inconsistent in deciding that prohibitions against sex discrimination protect trans people.
As the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) notes, “The [Obama-era] guidance gave students and their parents a powerful tool to advocate [for] themselves, and it gave schools much-needed practical information about implementing good policies.” That statement goes on to note that the current administration’s policy “could lead schools to be confused about what their responsibilities are under federal law, and it might make changing policies at unsupportive school districts an uphill battle for many students.” Additionally, NCTE says, “The Department of Education may not support trans and gender-nonconforming students who face discrimination in schools, and the policy reversal may make courts less likely to support these young people.”
Such students, when forced to use the bathroom associated with the sex marked on their birth certificate, risk harassment and sexual assault. Reports have shown they may respond by not drinking or eating all day, skipping school, withdrawing from friends, or cutting/harming themselves. (See this report or this report.)
The Williams Institute, an LGBTQ think tank at UCLA Law School, estimates there are well over 2,000 transgender Marylanders who are 13 to 17 years old. (Data are not available by county or for elementary schoolers.)
On March 21, Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) approved a resolution supporting trans youth, as well as immigrant and Muslim youth, in the school system, and reiterated its promise to offer “a safe and welcoming learning environment for all students.”
The PGCPS Board of Education also issued a specific resolution on transgender students. It notes that, as a result of the actions of the Trump administration, “the Prince George’s County Board of Education will continue to protect student privacy and confidentiality and safeguard against discrimination/ stigmatization/ bullying and/or harassment of transgender students.” Furthermore, the resolution states, “the Board and PGCPS will […] support students so they may actively participate in school life consistent with their asserted gender identity.”
These official statements were backed up by interviews with Board of Education president Dr. Segun Eubanks and board member Raaheela Ahmed.
The resolution on transgender students originated after Ahmed was contacted by a concerned constituent and realized, “This is exactly the opportunity and the time to make a statement.” In response, she said she and other board members wanted to show their support for all three student groups because “those are populations that are represented in our school community and they’re populations that have been specifically targeted by statements of the Trump administration.”
Dr. Eubanks noted, “When the new administration decided to remove that [transgender] guidance, we just felt it really important to just be clear to our students […] that we were going to treat them fairly and equally and equitably in our school district [regardless of religion, immigration status, or gender identity]. They should come to us ready to learn and not in fear of levels of discomfort or intimidation or fear.”
In formulating the resolutions, Ahmed researched statements from other school systems locally and nationally. Dr. Eubanks added that “because of the political and legal environment,” PGCPS worked to ensure that the wording “wouldn’t do anything to either cause litigation or endanger our district in some other way — and that we said the right thing [in order to protect students].”
Once the resolutions were drafted, Dr. Eubanks and Ahmed said that the board reached consensus quickly and easily.
Both Dr. Eubanks and Ahmed noted that there is no district-wide policy around transgender student bathroom usage. Dr. Eubanks explained that all schools have gender-neutral bathrooms available and that PGCPS has asked schools to treat this issue on a case-by-case basis. He is not aware of a school where a trans student has not been able to use “the bathroom of their gender choice.”
Citing the school district’s recent decision to eliminate different colored graduation gowns for girls and boys in favor of one color for everyone, Dr. Eubanks concluded, “While the issue around transgender students and bathroom use is a critically important one, we’ve really been trying to be continuously more vigilant with how we deal with issues around sexual orientation and gender fairness.”