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Sunday, September 23, 2012

Nashua School District applauded for accommodating transgender third-grader

After facing complaints that a transgender student was being discriminated against, the Nashua School District has agreed to let the student enroll at a new elementary school and be addressed as a female by school staff.

Janson Wu, a staff attorney with Gay &
Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, praised the Nashua School District for its efforts to accommodate the needs of the transgender third-grader. ...

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After facing complaints that a transgender student was being discriminated against, the Nashua School District has agreed to let the student enroll at a new elementary school and be addressed as a female by school staff.

Janson Wu, a staff attorney with Gay &
Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, praised the Nashua School District for its efforts to accommodate the needs of the transgender third-grader.

“I applaud the Nashua School District’s efforts to ensure that all students, including transgender students, are able to go to school safely and receive a good education,” Wu said.

The School District reached the settlement agreement with the family in May after addressing complaints from earlier in the school year.

“The issues that public schools must often address mirror the broader issues in our society,” Superintendent Mark Conrad said in an email to The Telegraph, “and to the extent these issues reflect differing or even divisive opinions in the general community, we must find ways to address those issues to balance competing viewpoints while assuring we are protecting the rights of all children and ensuring their success.”

The Nashua family participated in a series of interviews with The Telegraph, but ultimately asked to remain anonymous to protect the child’s right to privacy.

Her story started to attract attention when GLAD featured her family in “We Are New Hampshire,” a book that highlights transgender individuals living in the state. The story has since been taken down from the online version of the publication.

Accepting change

What would you do if your son told you he was your daughter?

That happened for this mother over the district’s winter break last year. When the child returned to second grade that January dressed as a girl, using a female name, she was initially accepted by her teacher and classmates and was allowed to use the same restrooms as the other girls in class, her mother said.

Her daughter was happier and better behaved than she ever had been as her son.

But when a classmate’s parent complained about the girl using female restrooms and staff continued addressing her as male, her daughter’s mood darkened and behavioral issues increased, her mother said.

The child was ultimately separated from her classmates, seated in a single desk in a room of shared tables and was no longer allowed to use the girls restroom, her mother said.

Eventually, her mother removed her from school, and she received outside tutorial services from the district for the remainder of the 2011-12 school year.

This fall, however, she is back in class at a new elementary school, according to an agreement reached between the district and the mother.

“It’s our policy not to discriminate against any student, and that would include transgender students,” Conrad said.

According to the agreement, provided by the family, the student will be treated “the same as all female students in every aspect.”

The School District agreed to identify her by female name in educational records and to grant her access to the restrooms used by her female classmates.

She also is permitted to wear the clothing that female students wear and is granted the use of female pronouns by school personnel.

According to the settlement, the student’s transgender status is confidential medical information, and related information can only be shared with “appropriate and necessary” staff, and not other students or their families unless authorized by the girl’s mother in writing.

Information about a student, including his or her transgender status, is confidential, said Wu, who represented the family in the settlement.

“Particularly for students who do have a medical diagnosis related to their transgender status, that is confidential medical information, and whether or not a student decides to come out as transgender is a personal decision,” Wu said. “It’s a difficult decision, and it’s one that has to be made on a case-by-case basis.”

The district doesn’t comment on the individual circumstances of a student.

The right to remain silent

Transgender students typically don’t require educational accommodations because of their transgender status, Conrad said.

“The principal accommodation has been in providing a student with the option to use an individual unisex bathroom,” he said.

During his three years as Nashua’s superintendent, Conrad said the district has changed students’ school assignments under state statutes and Board of Education policies a few times, but not for discrimination-related concerns.

When the district becomes aware it has a transgender student in the school community, it works with the student, parents and staff – usually the teacher, principal, school psychologist and guidance counselor – to assess that student’s needs, Conrad said in an email.

Only a handful of students in the School District are transgender, Conrad said.

“The desires and needs of each student will be different, and the plan for support will therefore be specific to that individual student,” Conrad said.

For instance, a few years ago, a high school-age transgender student requested to share her story with a health class at Nashua High South, and the school administration and health teacher allowed it, Conrad said.

There is no “formal place” in the district’s health curriculum to address questions relating to gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender individuals, Conrad said. But high school health units on sexual harassment “often leads to discussions on accepting differences in people,” he said.

As members of the transgender community identify themselves at increasingly younger ages, Wu said, transgender youths are often the first to come out in their district, triggering the need for education and some struggle for schools to reach a full understanding of who they are.

“It can be very challenging to be the first youth in a school to be out and having to blaze that path,” Wu said. “The epidemic of school bullying is incredibly troubling right now, and we know LGBT and transgender youth are disproportionately the targets.”

But for families and schools that support a transgender child, that transition can present positive opportunities, Wu said.

Live free

New Hampshire is the only state in New England that doesn’t have explicit laws that protect transgender individuals, Wu said.

“That is certainly something we would like to see fixed,” he said.

State and federal laws protect a student’s access to a safe and appropriate education, Wu said, which protects students – including transgender and gender-variant youths – across the board.

Still, codifying explicit protections for New Hampshire’s transgender population is “incredibly important,” Wu said.

“Only those explicit protections will provide the type of guidance that employers and businesses and schools are looking for as more and more transgender individuals are coming out,” Wu said.

The Nashua School District has a student and staff policy of not discriminating against any student, including those of the transgender or gender-variant population.

Staff members are oriented on that policy every two years, Conrad said, and the district hasn’t seen the need to develop policies that speak specifically to transgender concerns yet.

“I think that would depend on whether we see that need over time,” Conrad said. “Right now, it’s a relatively rare occurrence, and we’ve been able to work through concerns that arise. I think many of the protections are already in place.”

Public schools, by nature, have students who require individual accommodations or plans based on learning needs, health or mental concerns, family circumstances or other transitions in a student’s life, Conrad said.

Transgender students in school are now one of those situations.

However, it’s usually the adults who have the greatest difficulty adjusting.

“In the few instances in which transgender students have been members of our school communities, we have found parents or staff have more concerns than most of our students,” Conrad said.

Maryalice Gill can be reached at 594-6490 or mgill@nashua Also, follow Gill
on Twitter (@Telegraph_MAG).