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New school rules give transgender students 'right to be who they are'

When a transgender girl graduated in white gown from Springfield Township High School, her parents made an unusual request for two diplomas: one for her, with her new female name, and one for them, with her male birth name.

When a transgender girl graduated in white gown from Springfield Township High School, her parents made an unusual request for two diplomas: one for her, with her new female name, and one for them, with her male birth name.

Springfield administrators say they complied without hesitation as they, like many public and private schools, increasingly are being asked to accommodate students who have switched name and gender.

The small Montgomery County district, however, has gone a step further than most.

By a unanimous vote Tuesday, Springfield's school board adopted a policy under which the district must accept transgender students' "core identity" - the inner sense of being male or female - and provide equal access to all programs, activities, and, perhaps most salient, the bathroom of their asserted gender.

Such a policy is uncommon in Pennsylvania, but not unique. Great Valley School District in Chester County last week approved a similar one. Cherry Hill Public Schools adopted a policy in February; it is thought to be one of only a few in New Jersey. Other districts, including Lower Merion on the Main Line, are working on their own protocols.

Springfield officials said they don't know how many of their 2,300 students are transgender, because not everyone is open about it. However, Superintendent Nancy Hacker explained that the district took action now because "there are greater instances where students are willing to step forward and say, 'This is who I am.' There are even children in elementary schools telling parents: 'I don't feel comfortable with who I am. I think I'm someone different.' "

Hacker said she had gotten only four or five complaints from parents, and twice as many supportive emails.

In the Philadelphia region, school policies have been percolating quietly. But elsewhere, particularly in the South, the subject of transgender rights is being loudly and heatedly debated in venues ranging from statehouses to schoolhouses, courtrooms to streets, with angry echoes on the Republican presidential campaign trail as Sen. Ted Cruz and business Donald Trump reproach each other over bathroom rules.

On March 23, North Carolina passed a law that forces transgender people to use bathrooms in public buildings, including public schools, that correspond to the sexual identity on their birth certificates. Last week, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Virginia, ruled in favor of a transgender high school student who was born female but wanted to use the boys' restroom. The Fourth Circuit also covers North Carolina.

Estimates place the number of transgender adults in the United States at 700,000, or about three in every 1,000, according to a 2011 study from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Some schools have exhibited notable sensitivity in dealing with transgender students. They have hired consultants to advise staff and parents on how to handle kids' inevitable questions, resolve the restroom issue, use the best terminology for gender variance, and watch for harassment on the bus and in the lunchroom.

Others have not been as welcoming. In 2009, the advocacy group Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) surveyed nearly 300 transgender students ages 13 to 20. Among its findings: 53 percent said they had been pushed or shoved in school because of their gender expression; 87 percent said they had been called names or harassed verbally; 39 percent reported hearing a school staff member make a negative remark about their gender identity.

In Lower Merion, where the board will vote on a policy next month, the impetus came from students who wanted to know which name transgender kids would be allowed to use in the yearbook. The yearbook sponsor, teacher Nora Christman, said she didn't know the answer, and neither did anyone else. The new plan will allow students to use their preferred name on all unofficial documents, including the yearbook, diplomas, and school rosters.

"Adults live in our own world," Christman said, "but a lot of our students are very open-minded and have a lot of perspective of the world outside our buildings."

For many districts, the policies are also a practical response to the U.S. Department of Education's reiterating in recent years that Title IX antidiscrimination protections include gender identity. Fourteen states - New Jersey among them, though not Pennsylvania - have passed laws banning discrimination in schools against gender-variant students.

"It's a little bit of a shifting legal landscape, and schools are unclear what it means to protect students under Title IX," said Nathan Smith, director of public policy for GLSEN.

But students and parents are demanding that schools figure it out.

While bathrooms are the flash points, districts face a tangle of knotty issues. What name goes on the diploma? What if a transgender student requests a private bathroom and there isn't one? How should sleeping arrangements be handled on overnight field trips? On what sports team does a transgender student play, and which locker room should he or she use?

Schools' willingness to address those questions depends a lot on the community, with districts in more conservative parts of Pennsylvania getting more push-back than here, said Springfield's solicitor, Jeffrey Sultanik, whose law firm, Fox Rothschild, has given statewide presentations on the issue.

It's in the school boards' best interests to give administrators clear, consistent direction, so that when the situation comes up, there is a plan in place and every transgender child is treated fairly, said Phil Nicastro, vice president of Strauss Esmay, a Toms River, N.J., consulting firm that helped Cherry Hill write its policy.

Springfield's policy outlines privacy rights, handling of academic records, restroom and locker-room access, integration in athletic activities, dress codes, general harassment, and discrimination.

Staff may not question students' asserted identities; records must contain their legal names when changed; and students must be addressed by the pronoun that corresponds to their identity, even if they haven't legally changed their names.

In sports, transgender students may participate on the team with which they identify, as long as such participation complies with Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) rules.

They also may use the bathroom of their asserted gender, although locker-room questions will be resolved case by case. If requested, they will be given a private area in which to shower and change. "In no case," the policy states, will students be forced to use a locker that conflicts with their identity.

Great Valley Superintendent Regina Speaker Palubinsky said the district's new policy also calls for sensitivity training for staff.

The goal, she said, "is to set an equal playing field for all children, so no one has to fight for the right to be the way they are."

610-313-8232 @Kathy_Boccella