What happens at school when a girl doesn't act like a girl

How schools dealt with Grayson Bruce and Sunnie Kahle, two young students who didn't act according to gender norms, has drawn outrage. But such cases are complicated, and many schools are making progress toward being more understanding, experts say. 

Lenny Ignelzi/AP
Daniella McDonald, an activist and supporter of the School Success and Opportunity Act (AB1266), tells attendees at a rally organized by San Diego LGBTQ rights organizations Canvass for a Cause, SAME Alliance, and Black and Pink, that the petition drive to place a proposition on the ballot to repeal the law failed to garner enough signatures Monday, Feb. 24, in San Diego.

Several schools have sparked public outrage recently for how they’ve handled children who seemed to veer from gender expectations – including a short-haired Virginia girl who seemed too boyish to people at her Christian school and a boy in North Carolina who brought a “My Little Pony” bag to school.

Gender nonconforming students, who don’t follow stereotyped notions about their sex, and transgender students, who identify with the sex opposite the one assigned at birth, often face harassment, bullying, and misunderstanding at school. But the good news, advocates say, is that schools are getting better at including them and accommodating their needs.

“These recent cases are out of the norm. Trans kids are doing better, are being more accepted,” says Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality in Washington. Schools that discriminate against such students, she says, “should just be ashamed of themselves. Kids aren’t cookie cutter kids.”

A number of large public school districts, from Los Angeles to New York, have had policies for years that specifically address issues of gender identity. But “the law is still struggling to keep up,” says Francisco Negrón, general counsel of the National School Boards Association.

Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have laws that specifically protect students from gender-identity discrimination.

California passed a particularly comprehensive law that took effect in January, spelling out, for instance, that schools must let students use the bathrooms and locker rooms that that match the gender with which they identify.

Some advocacy groups argue that Title IX, the federal law banning sex discrimination, applies for these students as well. Private schools that don’t receive federal funds are exempt from Title IX. And private and religious schools are often exempt from nondiscrimination laws.

In many schools, gender identity issues are still handled case by case. But overall, public schools are now accepting of transgender students, reflecting that as a society, “we understand more what we mean by diversity in ways we didn’t even 10 years ago,” Mr. Negrón says.

In cases that make headlines or go viral on social media, the public shouldn’t rush to judgment, he adds. “What may appear to be a discriminatory act in one instance could be an administrator trying to prevent harm to a student,” Negrón says.

Last week, Grayson Bruce garnered more than 65,000 supporters on Facebook after being asked by his principal in North Carolina not to bring a “My Little Pony” bookbag to school. The school met with his mother and set up a plan for him to bring in the bag without being bullied, and Grayson’s parents issued a statement saying they would be involved in bullying prevention with the district.

The public perception was that the school was blaming Grayson for a gender issue, but “the principal would have a different explanation than gender,” says David Thompson, director of Buncombe County Schools’ student services. Privacy rules prevent him telling his side of it. The district integrates teachings about respect in its schools and address gender identity in its nondiscrimination and anti-harassment policies, he says.

This week, the Timberlake Christian Schools (TCS) in Virginia faced a wave of criticism as news stories spread about Sunnie Kahle, an 8-year-old whose great-grandmother, her guardian, withdrew her from the school and said she wasn’t welcome because of her short hair and choice of boyish clothes.

A letter from the school published by WSET.com mentions a Biblical lifestyle and says that enrollment can be discontinued if a student is practicing an “alternative gender identity.” It reads in part, “We believe that unless Sunnie as well as her family clearly understand that God has made her female and her dress and behavior need to follow suit with her God-ordained identity, that TCS is not the best place for her future education.”

WSET’s initial reporting has provided an inaccurate depiction, says Mat Staver, chairman of Liberty Counsel in Orlando, Fla., and counsel to TCS on this matter. He did not dispute the accuracy of the published letter, but says the school has been supportive of Sunnie, has never suggested she was immoral, and would like for her to remain at the school.

Issues such as her use of the girls’ restroom, “caused concern with the other girls in the school,” Mr. Staver says. The school is “trying to accommodate this girl, but on the other hand they have to … look after the interests of the other children as well.”

Staver says he is not able to discuss whether Sunnie has had any behavioral issues that caused concern, but notes that school officials don’t think her great-grandparents’ handling of the situation is “in any way designed to help this little girl.”

In Los Angeles, transgender students have been able to choose the locker rooms and bathrooms they use since 2011, and “we’ve never had a problem” related to that policy, says Stephen Jimenez, coordinator in the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Educational Equity Compliance Office.

LAUSD has required new hires to be trained about gender identity for about a decade. When school staff and parents work together to accommodate a student’s needs, children tend to accept their peers’ choices pretty readily, Mr. Jimenez says.

He tells of a second-grade girl who decided she wanted to “come out” as a boy to her class, which included a few friends who already knew. “The teacher said to the class, ‘Stella wants to be called Stuart and Stuart is a boy, so I want you all to welcome Stuart the boy to our class. Stuart entered the classroom, all the students clapped and sat down, and that was it.”

The importance of treating students with respect and keeping them safe regardless of their gender identity was driven home by a 2011 survey of more than 6,000 transgender and gender-nonconforming Americans. When they were in K-12 schools (many of them years ago) 78 percent experienced harassment, 35 percent assault, and 12 percent sexual violence. More than half who had experienced these various forms of mistreatment had attempted suicide.

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