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Op-Ed: Students Deserve Dignity (Albany Times Union)

By Donna Lieberman

Last week Governor Cuomo expressed his outrage to the State Education Department, calling the pervasive discrimination faced by transgender students in public schools “completely unacceptable, dangerous . . . and in complete contradiction to the values of our great state.” He demanded it produce a plan of action within seven business days.

Such a plan could not come a moment too soon.

On the books, New York has one of the strongest anti-harassment laws for students in the country. Five years ago, the state passed the Dignity for All Students Act, which explicitly forbids discrimination in schools on the basis of a student’s actual or perceived gender, gender identity or gender expression.

But transgender students tell a different, devastating story.

The governor issued his letter in response to a New York Civil Liberties Union’s report, Dignity for All?, documenting how, far from finding school a haven, transgender and gender nonconforming students as young as five are facing harassment and violence from other students and school staff on a routine basis. Harassment involving a student’s sex, gender or sexual orientation was the most commonly reported harassment in public schools during the 2012-13 school year, comprising 19 percent of reported incidents. And instead of providing support, schools are often imposing harmful, discriminatory policies.

Schools failure to follow the law is doing unthinkable damage to transgender students, who are among the most vulnerable of New York’s youth. One national study found that a staggering 41 percent of transgender people have attempted suicide at least once. Virtually all transgender students featured in the NYCLU’s report have asked to leave school or have otherwise disengaged from the school community.

The responsibility for this crisis lies squarely with the State Education Department, which has failed to provide meaningful guidance to schools on how to follow the law and protect transgender youth. Operating blindly, schools and districts — large and small, rural and urban — create ad-hoc policies which are almost always insufficient, harmful and illegal.

The Education Department rightly points out that the state has failed to fund Dignity Act compliance. And the Republican-controlled State Senate has repeatedly blocked two important bills that would explicitly prohibit discrimination against transgender people or extend state human rights protections to our schools.

But these failures of leadership compound, not excuse, the failure of the Education Department to act.

First, issuing guidance to schools costs nothing. Second, the NYCLU, Empire Justice Center, Empire State Pride Agenda and other advocates have already provided the Department with a model policy based on proven guidance from other states. The policy requires schools to respect students’ preferred names and gender pronouns, provide access to restrooms and locker rooms that correspond with students’ gender identity (and private spaces for all students who desire additional privacy), and allow transgender students equal opportunity to participate in sports and gym. Central to progress is training staff, empowering students to report incidents and improving how schools report harassment trends to the state. Finally, to ensure long term success, this policy must be codified into law.

The Department cannot afford to delay further in adopting this model policy. We cannot put a price on the lives of transgender and gender nonconforming kids like Jessie, a 6-year-old who was physically attacked, or Sara, a 15-year-old whose tormentors have made her anxious to the point that she can’t go to class.

Denying any child in New York their right to an education should never be an option. The Education Department cannot stand by while transgender youth are put in danger in public schools every day. Neither can our other state political leaders.

Lieberman is the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

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