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Victory: Landmark State Policy Promises Transgender Students an Equal Education

The New York State Education Department today released official guidance for school districts across the state, a major step toward ensuring that transgender and gender nonconforming youth can access their right to an education. The announcement is the result of years of advocacy by transgender advocates and supporters across the state, most recently a New York Civil Liberties Union report that documented the pervasive harassment faced by transgender students and prompted Governor Cuomo to demand the Education Department take immediate action to address the concerns.

“We applaud the State Education Department for providing guidance so every school in the state knows how to follow the law and protect the rights of transgender and gender nonconforming youth,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “Too many New York youth have faced relentless harassment and discrimination in the schools that should have nurtured them just for being who they are. We look forward to working with the state to ensure that transgender students have the same rights to an education that all kids are entitled to in New York.”

The new policy clearly explains the law for school districts and directs them on how to create a supportive school environment. The guidance tells all New York public school districts they must respect the names and gender pronouns of transgender youth, protect their privacy with regard to student records, provide all students with access to restrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity, promote training and education about gender identity issues, and allow transgender and gender nonconforming students the opportunity to participate in gender-segregated activities that correspond with their gender identity.

In June, the NYCLU released a report documenting the devastating anti-transgender discrimination that has persisted since the passage of the Dignity for All Students Act five years ago, state civil rights legislation that was supposed to protect all public school students from bullying and harassment and explicitly prohibits discrimination based on actual or perceived gender, including gender identity and gender expression. Unfortunately, until today the State Education Department failed to provide schools with guidance on how to apply the law to transgender youth. As a result, communities large and small across the state have created their own ad-hoc policies – most of which are insufficient, illegal and deeply damaging to transgender and gender nonconforming youth.

The report shows that incidents of harassment involving gender stereotypes (i.e., harassment related to a student’s sex, gender or sexual orientation) were the most commonly reported incidents of harassment in public schools. During the 2012-13 school year, New York schools reported 24,478 incidents of harassment under the Dignity Act, 19 percent of which were related to gender stereotypes.

Schools’ failure to follow the law does 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.

One day after the report was released, Governor Cuomo wrote a letter to the State Education Department expressing his “outrage” and 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, and conduct a review of schools’ full compliance with the Dignity Act within three weeks.

The NYCLU and advocates across the state have been working closely with the State Education Department to finalize this guidance, urging it to adopt a model policy developed by the Empire Justice Center, Empire State Pride Agenda and the NYCLU, with contributions and support from organizations across the state.

The guidance issued today by the Education Department mirrors the recommendations put forth in the model policy, including telling all schools to:

  • Respect the preferred names and gender pronouns of students;
  • Respect students’ right to privacy and confidentiality in regards to maintenance of student records;
  • Provide all students with access to restrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity, and provide private bathrooms and changing spaces to all students who desire additional privacy (although private facilities should never be forced upon any student), and provide transgender students the same opportunities to participate in gender-segregated activities as other students;
  • Encourage the regular training of all adults working in schools to ensure they understand the range of gender identities and expressions and know what they must do to create a supportive environment for all students; and
  • Provide resources for school faculty to use to educate themselves and their students.

“The steps taken today by the State Education Department are a victory for the transgender and gender nonconforming students who braved speaking out about the discrimination and harassment that has pushed many of them out of school,” said NYCLU Lead Organizer Lauren Frederico, an author of the report. “New York schools should be a haven for all students. Now that schools are clearly on notice on how to follow the law, we are hopeful that today’s announcement will be a turning point for transgender students in New York.”

“Empire Justice Center is proud to have worked closely with NYSED and our partner advocates to develop New York’s gender-inclusive guidance document, a crucial new resource that will help reduce gender-based discrimination and harassment in our state’s schools,” said Julia Sáenz, the Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellow at Empire Justice Center’s LGBT Rights Project. “This guidance will be particularly important for transgender and gender nonconforming students in Upstate New York where we provide services, especially the most rural counties, where there are very few supportive services for this population.”

“Empire State Pride Agenda is proud to have worked in collaboration with other advocates and the New York State Department of Education to create these new guidelines, which will offer our schools a much-needed map pointing the way toward a safe and supportive educational environment for transgender students, and will help schools provide those students with the same educational opportunities as every other child,” said Eòghann Renfroe, Empire State Pride Agenda manager of transgender education and advocacy. “At a time in which an epidemic of transgender teen suicide is sweeping the nation, a safe educational environment doesn’t only ensure kids a chance to learn – it absolutely saves lives. As coordinator of the LGBT Health and Human Services Network, the Pride Agenda has extensive firsthand knowledge of the struggle students and schools alike have had in trying to address the needs of transgender students without a clear, statewide policy, because Network organizations have been absolutely overwhelmed with requests for help, training and guidance. We look forward to working with our partners and stakeholders to take the next steps to ensure that every child in New York has access to a safe, quality education.”

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