After public and school board pressure, the Philadelphia School District is moving to assure that its transgender and nonconforming students are referred to by their preferred names and pronouns.
The move — announced in an email to principals this week and expected to be formally presented to the school board on Thursday — follows a groundbreaking 2016 district policy meant to ensure “safety, equity, and justice for all students regardless of their gender identity or gender expression so that they can reach their fullest human and intellectual potential.” Students do not need parental approval, a court order, or evidence of medical transition, and the policy also applies to the bathrooms students are permitted to use and the sports teams aligned with their gender identity.
But when the pandemic halted in-person instruction, some students found themselves referred to by their “dead name” because Google Classroom, the district’s preferred online platform, didn’t reflect the students’ preferences. At first, school officials said they were limited by technology in how to fix the issue.
It’s unclear how many students in the district identify as transgender or nonconforming; the district doesn’t keep such data. But it was a major problem for some students, said Maddie Luebbert, a district teacher who identifies as nonbinary.
“This public display can become a serious threat to a student’s physical, emotional, or mental well-being,” Luebbert told the school board last month. “I hope I do not need to explain how vulnerable queer youth are — more likely to be homeless, more likely to face abuse, more likely to be dealing with mental illness, more likely to attempt suicide.”
LGBTQ students’ rights have become a hot-button issue nationally, with school districts sued, in some cases, over how transgender students are referred to, which locker rooms they’re able to use, and what protections apply to them.
Elias Musselman, a junior at Central High who identifies as transgender, knows the sting of being referred to by the wrong name. After some initial pushback, Musselman was able to have his name changed in the School District system when he requested the change as a sophomore, he said. But when a substitute teacher called roll using his dead name, it caused trauma.
“My whole class, who knew me as Eli, suddenly heard my birth name, and I would start having an anxiety attack and crying,,” Musselman said. The issue has since been fixed and his name registers correctly in Google Classroom, but larger issues remain, he said.
“Some students don’t get support from their families, and to have support from school is such a big thing,” said Musselman. “To be called a name you don’t want to be called really affects you.”
The online glitch worried school board member Mallory Fix Lopez, who publicly pushed Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. to get it fixed quickly. Losing in-person schooling to the pandemic is traumatizing for students, and this magnified the trauma for vulnerable youth who look to school for safety and affirmation, she said.
“We’re at a time where so much is out of our control, but this is something that is in our control,” Fix Lopez said. “To me, it’s not so much about a name, but an identity.”