Communiqué

Safe School Environments for Transgender Students

Volume 44 Issue 1

By Coraline Dubois & Rachel Losoff

Transgender individuals report that using a public bathroom (labeled either women or men) can be a very stressful experience (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, 2012). Transgender students in school may have this stressful experience at least once daily or may avoid using the bathroom at all during the day. One can only imagine what it must be like for these students to experience such anxiety on a daily basis. School psychologists can be integral to helping ease the anxiety of this experience for transgender students and to creating a safe and nurturing environment for these students at school.

Experience of Transgender Students

Transgender students have unique and intense needs to be addressed for a safer and more inclusive school experience. To better understand the experiences and challenges of transgender students, Greytak, Kosciw, and Diaz (2009) surveyed nearly 300 students between the ages of 13 to 20 who identify as transgender. They found that within the LGBTQ community, transgender students reported the highest level of victimization based on their sexual orientation and gender expression. More than 85% of transgender students surveyed reported being verbally harassed in the past year in school, more than 50% reported being physically harassed (e.g., pushed, shoved) in school, and more than 25% reported being physically assaulted (e.g., punched, kicked, or injured with a weapon) in school. It is no wonder that nearly half of these students reported that they missed at least one day of school in the previous month because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable (Greytak, Kosciw, & Diaz, 2009). Other surveys confirm that 80% of transgender students reported feeling unsafe at school (Trans Student Equality Resources, 2013).

Experiencing harassment and feeling unsafe at school can lead to other negative educational outcomes, such as depression, victimization, poor academic outcomes, substance abuse, school avoidance, risky sexual behavior, suicidal ideation, and suicidal behavior (Garibaldi & Pasillas, 2014). School psychologists are essential in reversing some of these negative outcomes and can start by acknowledging transgender students' rights. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) "acknowledges that neither having a transgender identity nor being perceived as gender diverse is a disorder, and that efforts to change a person's gender identity are ineffective, harmful, and discriminatory" (NASP, 2014, p. 1). Abiding by this position statement from NASP, school psychologists can promote school acceptance for transgender students, as school acceptance can likely lead to more positive outcomes for these students. Transgender youth who are supported report better life satisfaction, self-esteem, and mental health with fewer problems at home, fewer suicide attempts, and lower reports of depression (Trans Student Equality Resources, 2013). To foster the feeling of school acceptance, school psychologists can help to develop a safe school environment.

Creating a Safe School Environment

A safe school environment includes physical, social, and cultural elements. To create a safe school environment for transgender students, school personnel can (a) display supportive signs and posters, (b) promote supportive student clubs, (c) set up gender-neutral facilities, (d) create therapeutic places where students can seek refuge, (e) create safe zones, and (f) develop sensitive classrooms.

Signs and posters. Schools should display signs and posters supporting the LGBTQ community that aid in creating an inclusive school social and cultural environment. Schools can designate places for LGBTQ students, clubs, or staff representatives to set up informative displays or signs with accepting messages. NASP's GLBTQ committee and the Safe School Coalition website offers free downloadable posters (see http://www.nasponline.org/advocacy/glbtposters.aspx).

Supportive student clubs. Student-directed clubs promoting a safe school environment, such as LGBTQ student-directed clubs, should be developed and promoted. Popular clubs are the Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs), which are student clubs intended to improve school climate for all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, GLSEN, 2012). GLSEN offers online resources about ways to establish and register a GSA club, tools to train student leaders to create a new club, and a network of other registered GSA chapters (seehttp://glsen.org/jumpstart for more information). Furthermore, some schools might consider changing the names of the Gay-Straight Alliance to the "Gay-Straight-Trans-Cis Alliance" in order to better include transgender students.

Gender-neutral facilities. Schools should create gender-neutral facilities, which include bathrooms and locker rooms. These facilities should be in accessible locations. Considerations for signage and the physical set-up of the facilities will be further described following the explanation of one school's journey to set up gender-neutral facilities.

Therapeutic places. Schools also should have therapeutic places available where transgender students can seek refuge. Therapeutic places can include but are not limited to the offices of the school psychologist, social worker, or counselor. These offices should include signs and posters indicating that they are supportive environments. Staff working in designated therapeutic places must be knowledgeable about resources in the community for transgender students and should maintain an up-to-date list of these resources, such as LGBTQ organizations and support groups offered at some medical centers. Staff members also should have pamphlets about these resources that are readily accessible in their offices. Including resources like these help extend these therapeutic places into the community environment.

Safe zones. Safe zones are offices or classrooms in which there is a trained staff member to respond to the needs of transgender students. In order to adequately provide safe zones for students who identify as transgender, staff members need to be appropriately trained. Only staff members who have partaken in training and are appropriately educated about the needs of transgender individuals should be permitted the opportunity to display "safe zone" stickers or signs on office doors. It is vital that individuals advertizing that their spaces are safe zones are, in fact, trained to work with transgender students and able to provide an unbiased and safe setting. Staff must only advocate for their safe zone if they are comfortable being approached on all topics associated with the LGBTQ population. If staff members display safe zones signs but do not offer an unbiased and supportive response to transgender students, these students may not trust that spaces advertised as safe are in fact safe.

Miscommunication and lack of supports can arise when the staff feels uncomfortable about transgender individuals, which may be a result of not understanding or not being educated on the topic. In a study of transgender youth, more than one third of the students heard homophobic remarks, sexist remarks, or negative comments about a person's gender from school staff. On top of that, students reported that it was not common for school staff to intervene when people made homophobic remarks or negative remarks about someone's gender. Only 11%-16% of students reported that staff intervened (Greytak, Kosciw, & Diaz, 2009). Because of statistics like these, it is crucial for schools to develop a school-wide professional training on transgender awareness to create both a safe school environment and sensitive classrooms.

Sensitive classrooms. School psychologists are essential leaders in developing sensitive classrooms by training teachers on some critical elements involved in working with transgender students, such as allowing students to use preferred names versus birth name, using correct pronouns, and using unbiased language by keeping gender and gender identity in mind for all classroom activities and health curricula.

It is important to allow transgender students to use their preferred names. For transgender students, preferred name and birth name can be different. A transgender student may not identify with a given birth name and may have a chosen, or preferred name, instead. It is important for school staff to listen to the name that the student uses. When unsure what name is preferred, staff members should ask the student and make a note of it on attendance lists. Updated attendance lists will help eliminate confusion for substitute teachers and will decrease discomfort for transgender students during role call.

An additional step that many schools are trying to achieve is to have the information technology (IT) system display birth names and preferred names. School administrators can work with the IT department to ensure that the IT system includes a student's identifying gender rather than birth gender and preferred name rather than birth name to generate computer logins, attendance rosters, and report cards. In some cases, school districts will not make these changes unless the student legally changes his or her name. If this is the case and the IT system does not correctly portray the student's preferred information, the school must have a plan to communicate the correct information to staff members who may be involved in the classroom.

To use the correct pronoun for transgender students, it is best to ask the students what pronoun they prefer when unsure which to use. Pronoun preference may be masculine, feminine, or gender-neutral (for a list of gender-neutral pronouns visithttp://nonbinary.org/wiki/Pronouns#Ze). Additionally, staff should never reference a different gender when talking about the past and, instead, should refer to transgender students as the gender that they use to refer to themselves. Many transgender individuals feel that they have always been the gender they have "come out" as and were not once the other gender.

Teachers should use unbiased language in classrooms by keeping gender and gender identity in mind for all classroom activities and health curricula. Teachers should be conscious about how they are dividing the class for activities and should not use gender as a way to divide the class. Many teachers may have the tendency to give directions, such as, "Boys line up here and girls line up there," which forces students to either "out" their gender identity or to be categorized with a gender they may not identify with. Instead, teachers can group students by colors of clothing, hobbies, birthday months, or first letters of their names, which serves as a fun way for students to get to know each other better. Finally, instead of greeting with, "Good morning boys and girls," teachers can greet students by simply saying, "Good morning students."

In addition, health class curricula must teach and include the entire gender identity and sexual orientation spectrum for such classrooms to become more sensitive toward transgender students. Staff should learn the difference between gender identityand sexual orientation. Gender identity refers to the gender that a person thinks of oneself as and the gender that this person would like others to view them as. Sexual orientation refers to whom a person is attracted and with whom a person desires to be in an intimate relationship. Instructors should not assume that all students identify as heterosexual or the gender with which they were assigned at birth.

To ensure that all of these components of sensitive classrooms are followed, a training can help staff become more aware of transgender students' needs and will encourage them to better support these students and assure their safety. State and community resources can be sought out for ideas, information, speakers, and professional development key points (e.g., Illinois Safe School Alliance, GLSEN, Gay-Straight Alliance Network). With outside resources, schools can raise awareness about creating sensitive classrooms to better serve transgender students. Overall, creating a safe physical school environment by displaying supportive signs and posters, promoting supportive student clubs, setting up gender-neutral facilities, creating therapeutic places where students can seek refuge, creating safe zones, and developing sensitive classrooms can reduce the bullying and victimization of transgender students and can increase their positive outcomes. One school's journey to foster positive outcomes and to support their transgender students will be shared in order to guide others in this process.

How One School Created Safe Zones

During the 2013-2014 academic year, staff in a high school on the outskirts of Chicago began the process of establishing a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) advisory committee. Staff members who had expressed interest in better supporting LGBTQ students were sought out by the school psychologist, a teacher, and an administrator. The LGBTQ advisory committee was developed and included an administrator, dean, safety staff, athletic director, operations staff, counselor, department chair, school psychologist, school psychologist interns, teachers (including one Gay-Straight Alliance sponsor), and social workers.

Using resources. The committee contacted a representative from the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance (http://www.illinoissafeschools.org) and invited him to present several examples of existing policies from high schools around the country. The committee reviewed local, state, and federal laws concerning bullying, harassment, and discrimination policies, including the policies of other districts and how some of those policies could be integrated into their specific high school. The committee integrated this information into a purpose and a mission statement.

Purpose and mission statement. The purpose of the LGBTQ advisory committee was to create policies aimed at fostering a safe and discrimination-free school environment for all students, regardless of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. Over several meetings, the team developed their mission statement:

The mission of the LGBTQ Committee is to foster a safe and positive environment for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) students at [School Name]. The committee provides advocacy and supports the development of curriculum, events, and programs that are both educational and social and are designed to cultivate positive attitudes toward LGBTQ individuals and issues.
This committee:
  1. Provides advocacy for LGBTQ students and staff in order to help them benefit from positive personal and educational experiences.
  2. Encourages full implementation of the Illinois state law and the [School Name] policies barring discrimination and harassment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.
  3. Recommends plans and policies that promote diversity and mutual respect.
  4. Explores ways of expanding the curriculum to include opportunities for learning and teaching in the area of LGBTQ issues and other ways to support intellectual activities in these areas (LGBTQ Advisory Committee, personal communication, 2014).

Finding a focus. After the committee learned that the two gender-neutral spaces (i.e., one bathroom, one locker room) that had already been established for transgender students were not meeting their needs and were unsafe for the students, it was evident that creating more bathrooms and reestablishing the locker room's safety were the first priorities for this committee. Initial conversations on the topic brought forward the limitations of having only one established gender-neutral bathroom and locker room in a large school building.

Student voices. The LGBTQ advisory committee included student voices, and a transgender student volunteered to partake in several meetings about the bathrooms. The student, being a Gay-Straight Alliance member and advocate for the LGBTQ community, brought forth two main concerns that staff members may not have known otherwise: location and availability of the gender-neutral bathroom and safety of the gender-neutral locker room. For location, the only available gender-neutral restroom was located in one wing of the four-wing building. The building is set up similar to a cross, making it difficult for students to easily reach the one gender-neutral bathroom in one wing when they had a class in any of the other three wings. It could take the student 5 to 10 minutes to reach the area of the building where the current gender-neutral bathroom was located. For availability, the second problem was that students other than transgender students had been granted privileges to the gender-neutral locker room for reasons other than needing a gender-neutral space (e.g., needing a one-person locker room due to habits of stealing), and the spaces were not always available.

Taking action. Over the course of several meetings, the committee solved part of the students' concerns by clearly defining the already-established restroom and locker room as gender-neutral facilities. Employees were informed about these changes, and students who had been using the space were relocated to more appropriate areas.

Committee members began investigating other spaces in the school that could be converted and used as designated gender-neutral bathrooms. Two underutilized staff bathrooms were established as the second and third gender-neutral student bathrooms. Employees were notified and the signs were replaced with unisex bathroom signs. The transgender students were made aware and granted access to the areas. Transgender students now had access to three separate gender-neutral restrooms in three parts of the school building and no longer had to travel far to reach a bathroom; nor did they have to experience the anxiety of having to choose between the typical male or female bathroom sign.

The previously existing gender-neutral locker room in the physical education wing remained. Schedules of students who identified as transgender were examined to prevent conflict of use. No students were granted knowledge of or access to the space except for those needing a gender-neutral space. Overall, the committee considered the physical set-up and signage, as well as location and availability, when creating these gender-neutral facilities. See Table 1 for a list of considerations that schools can review when setting up these facilities.

Table 1 Considerations for Gender-Neutral Facilities
AREAS TO CONSIDERSUGGESTIONS
Physical setup
  • Single stall
  • Lockable access with a key or a code lock
  • Toilet and urinal
  • Tampon and condom dispensers
  • Changing station
  • Locker room: shower, locker(s), chair/bench
  • Resources: signs/pamphlets for sexual harassment/bullying hotlines and contact information, list of offices that are safe zones
Signage
  • Outside the door: typical symbols for men, women, and handicapped individuals
  • Inside: atypical "this bathroom is for all genders" signs
  • On gender-segregated facility doors: state where single-stall restrooms are located
Location and availability
  • Post bathroom and locker room locations on school website.
  • Inform students of locations during orientation and provide them with contact information of staff who are responsible for granting access.
  • Accessible from various locations of the building without having to travel long distances.

Student feedback. The committee solicited feedback again from a transgender student representative who had shared the changes with GSA club members. Positive feedback was reported regarding the separate locker room, gender-neutral bathrooms, and other actions that the committee had taken (e.g., informing teachers of desired pronouns for transgender students). Students revealed that having more gender-neutral facilities eliminated tardiness and having to go to an opposite area of the building to use the bathroom during classes. Students also said that the private locker room felt safer than having to share it with nontransgender students, after solely being used as a gender-neutral facility for one student per class period. Students also felt that the future focus of the committee could be on placing the locker room in a more private location because it was easy to notice when a student would come out of this room instead of leaving the same locker room as peers. One student suggested giving transgender students permission to leave class a few minutes early to enter and exit the locker room before other students.

Furthermore, the committee's student representative felt that future considerations could be made to accommodate female to male transgender students who practice binding (flattening the breast down with constrictive materials) as it has an impact on being able to breathe easily, making walking long distances and going up or down flights of stairs more difficult. Proposed solutions were the use of elevator passes or permission to leave class early. Another future consideration was to create a gender-neutral physical education class if there were enough students or to allow transgender students to complete physical education requirements through early bird classes before the start of the school day.

This school's process of creating safe zones for transgender students is presented to serve as an example. Although changes and strides were made, the committee will continue to better accommodate transgender individuals in the school. In the future, the committee could address several additional areas: creating a more publicly supportive school environment using designated spaces for displays, staff trainings to create safe zones, and school-wide trainings for maintaining sensitive classrooms. The committee's goal remains to create a more inclusive school environment, and it will continue to ask for feedback from the transgender students in the school to ensure that they feel safe and supported at all times.

References

Garibaldi, E., & Pasillas, M. (n.d.). Supporting LGBTQ students in school: A public health model. [handout]. Orange, CA: Chapman University.

Gates, G. (2011, April). How many people are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender? Los Angeles, CA: The Williams Institute, UCLA. Retrieved from http://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/Gates-How-Many-People-LGBT-Apr-2011.pdf

Gender-Neutral Restrooms. (2015, January 1). Retrieved fromhttp://www.umass.edu/stonewall/uploads/listWidget/8749/bathroom/FAQ.pdf

Greytak, E. A., Kosciw, J. G., & Diaz, E. M. (2009). Harsh realities: The experiences of transgender youth in our nation's schools. New York, NY: GLSEN.Grossman, A. H., & D'augelli, A. R. (2006). Transgender youth: Invisible and vulnerable. Journal of Homosexuality, 51(1), 111–128.

National Association of School Psychologists. (2014). Safe schools for transgender and gender diverse students [Position statement]. Bethesda, MD: Author.

Pronouns. (2015, February 3). Retrieved from http://nonbinary.org/wiki/Pronouns#Ze

Trans*resources. (2013). Trans Student Equality Resources. Retrieved from http://transstudent.org/sites

Website Resources

Steps to set up a Gay-Straight Alliance (http://glsen.org/jumpstart)

List of gender neutral pronouns (http://nonbinary.org/wiki/Pronouns#Ze)

Free posters (http://www.nasponline.org/advocacy/glbtposters.aspx)

Examples of a state website to support safe schools for all students (http://www.illinoissafeschools.org)


Caroline Dubois, NCSP, is a school psychologist at the Joseph E. Hill Education Center, Evanston/Skokie School District 65. Rachel Losoff, PhD, NCSP, is an associate professor of school psychology at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology