Getting an education has not always been easy for Red Clay Consolidated School District student Trinity Neal.
She was told to leave public school when she was 4 years old after coming out as transgender, and her mother, DeShanna Neal, homeschooled her for 10 years.
Now a senior in high school, Trinity and other Red Clay students like her may have an official policy to protect their usage of preferred names, pronouns, bathrooms and locker rooms. It would also reinforce the state ruling that athletics cannot discriminate based on gender identity.
“Our priority is to have a safe, healthy environment for all students,” said the district’s Deputy Superintendent Hugh Broomall.
Broomall presented a draft of the policy to the school board on Nov. 17. He said that the overall response from parents, staff and students has been positive, though some have expressed concerns about how the policy will be implemented.
The policy also states that it is up to students whether to disclose if they are transgender and reinforces that “it is the right of that student to have their choice respected.” At the same time, DeShanna Neal pointed out that the current draft of the policy would require parental consent for students to use a preferred name and pronouns.
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She explained that this requirement would make it difficult for transgender students who are not yet out to their family or don’t have supportive parents to socially transition. She said she plans to bring this issue up to help revise the policy prior to the final review this month.
“You need to let those kids know ... that they are heard and seen, and will be safe and supported at the same time,” DeShanna Neal said.
Oftentimes, DeShanna Neal said she and her children have run into issues with teachers and school administrators who “feel like they have no idea what they need to do.” With a policy like the one being proposed, DeShanna Neal said educators can receive better training on how to effectively handle issues involving transgender students.
“If you don't know how to handle these concerns sensitively, then we're going to keep having the climate which all the reports show are not great,” she said.
She referenced the National School Climate Survey, an annual report by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network. The organization – abbreviated by many as GLSEN – found that in 2019, 42.5% of LGBTQ students felt unsafe in school because of their gender identity or expression. The survey also showed that 86.3% of LGBTQ students nationwide experienced some form of harassment or assault.
Red Clay Consolidated School District sent out a similar survey to its students in 2019. It asked them to answer a series of questions about their identities and what their perspective of the school climate was.
Tawanda Bond, director of equity and strategic partnerships for the district, said the results showed a “fairly significant” number of LGBTQ students, many of whom identified as transgender or non-binary.
“We need to be deliberately inclusive,” Bond said.
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The school has received some pushback, particularly from parents who fear the policy could lead to sexual assault or harassment.
However, a study by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law found there were no increased safety risks when transgender people use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity.
a.t. Furuya, senior youth programs manager at the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, said it’s understandable to have concerns, especially if parents don’t personally know any transgender people. This “common narrative” often prioritizes the wellbeing of cisgender students, Furuya said, when their transgender peers are more likely to be bullied or attacked.
“Our job as adults is to provide that safe environment for all students,” they said.
Furuya suggested that students who are uncomfortable could find a different option that would make them feel safer, such as using a single-occupancy bathroom or changing in a stall in the locker room.
At the same time, Furuya said they believe that “the parents and guardians are the ones worrying more about this than the actual students.”
Trinity Neal agreed.
She said most of her peers think that LGBTQ students like her are “just normal people.” However, when there are issues, teachers and administrators don’t always support her or fully understand the situation.
At her previous school, she said, she told staff that she was being bullied because of her gender identity. The administration blamed her for it multiple times.
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“That doesn't make any sense,” Trinity said. “Why would you blame a person who needs help?”
She eventually decided to transfer schools and said she hopes that the passage of a non-discrimination policy will help staff to “actually understand” and create a more inclusive environment.
The Delaware Department of Education issued a similar statement.
“All Delaware students’ gender identity choices deserve respect, and students should have safe, supportive learning environments,” said a spokesperson for the department.
A policy affirming the rights of transgender and non-binary students to use their preferred bathroom and locker room is already in place in Christina School District. When it was approved in January of this year, DeShanna Neal said the “undercurrent of change was already happening” at Red Clay.
Still, when Christina first brought its proposal forward in 2019, some Red Clay parents and staff suggested a similar policy. DeShanna Neal remembered the “disappointing” result: school board members said they “weren’t even going to look at it.”
“This is not just going to be about enforcing a policy to ensure the safety of all students, but building a community to bring in families so that everyone feels safe and supportive,” DeShanna said.
The policy will be up for discussion and a school board vote on Dec. 15. If approved, the policy would go into effect the next day. The meeting will be open to public comment at 7 p.m. on Zoom or in person at Richardson Park Elementary School at 16 Idella Ave. near Elsmere.
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This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: Red Clay debates anti-discrimination policy for transgender students