Concord School District working on policy for transgender students

  • Grey Dunlap stands on the steps of Concord High School. ALLIE ST PETER / Monitor staff

  • Grey Dunlap on the steps of Concord High School ALLIE ST PETER—Monitor Staff

  • Grey Dunlap on the steps of Concord High School ALLIE ST PETER—Monitor Staff

  • Grey Dunlap, a tenth-grader at Concord High School, first requested to change their name and pronouns at school in 2019. The school does not have a policy to handle that unless a name is legally changed, so they had to speak to teachers individually. ALLIE ST PETER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 12/12/2020 5:49:02 PM

When the Concord School Board, flush with new members, reconvenes in January, one of the tasks that lies ahead is creating a policy for transgender and gender-nonconforming students.

A report by the ACLU of New Hampshire was released last week showing 66% of New Hampshire public school students attend a school without comprehensive protections for students who are transgender or gender nonconforming. Concord was named in the report as one of the districts that doesn’t currently have comprehensive protections for transgender students, along with Manchester, Bow, Pembroke, Londonderry and others.

Concord’s proposed policy is still in its early stages, but its aim is clear: to protect every student’s right to an education.

In Concord, the policy will address discrimination and harassment and offer guidance on restroom and locker room accessibility, name and pronoun use in official and unofficial circumstances, physical education and sports, dress codes and gender support and transition plans. It will also provide a list of LGBTQ terms and definitions to help those who aren’t familiar with the terminology.

Grey Dunlap, a tenth-grader at Concord High School, first requested to be referred to by a new name and different pronouns at school in December 2019. At the time, Dunlap was told that the school couldn’t do anything about the request, since Dunlap’s name and gender had not been changed legally. Dunlap, who uses they/them pronouns, had to talk with each teacher individually to ask them to make the switch.

It wasn’t until two months ago, when Dunlap completed the legal process of officially changing their name with the state of New Hampshire, that Concord High School followed suit. Dunlap’s name and pronouns are now updated in official school records.

Dunlap, who is a member of the Tide Pride Gay and Straight Alliance at the high school, is glad there’s a policy in the works that may help to streamline the process for future students.

“I hope it helps. I definitely know a lot of students who are very discouraged by how long the process takes and how inefficient it used to be,” Dunlap said. “I hope it helps students do what I did.”

Local control

Palana Belken authored the ACLU report that recommended school districts begin the process of creating policies to protect transgender and gender nonconforming students. Belken is a policy advocate, Rochester city councilor, and former trans-justice organizer for the New Hampshire ACLU.

“School districts haven’t really found a way to deal with transgender students,” Belken said. “And New Hampshire is such a state of local control that it really is up to each municipality.”

The work has already begun in the school board’s Communications and Policy Committee, which is in charge of developing and maintaining the guiding principles for the district. At a committee meeting on Nov. 9, school safety compliance officer Karen Fischer-Anderson gave committee members a rough draft of a potential policy for Concord to adopt, along with some educational materials and some examples of similar policies adopted by other districts.

Fischer-Anderson was the one who brought the policy idea to the board, as part of her ongoing work as the district’s Title IX coordinator.

“Under Title IX, gender is one of those issues where schools have to protect students,” Fischer-Anderson said. “We worked on the Title IX policy, which talks about non-discrimination in public schools. One of the categories specifically listed is sex and gender identification.”

A 2019 student climate survey conducted by GLSEN found that nationwide, students in schools with comprehensive transgender policies were less likely to experience anti-LGBTQ discrimination in their school. The data show they were less likely to be prevented from using their name or pronoun in school, less likely to be prevented from using bathrooms aligned with their gender, less likely to be prevented from wearing clothes thought to be “inappropriate” gender-wise, and were less likely to miss school due to feeling unsafe or uncomfortable.

In New Hampshire, where only 48 of the 196 school districts and charter schools have adopted a transgender student policy, 26% of New Hampshire LGBTQ students were prevented from using locker rooms that aligned with their gender identity in 2017, and 25% were prevented from using their chosen name or gender pronouns at school, according to data from GLSEN’s 2017 climate survey. The New Hampshire data from 2019 will be released in January.

Beyond offering protections, policies provide guidance for educators to follow when interacting with their transgender students. Without that guidance, students say they have mixed experiences with their teachers.

“From what I’ve seen, there was a split in teachers who are super helpful, who remind other students, who remind other teachers [about pronouns],” Dunlap said. “There are definitely teachers who, since it’s not something that is pressed down on them, they will push it away and not use it or use excuses up to that point to not give the student the respect they are asking for. I think this policy would maybe help a little bit for students who are having issues with certain teachers.”

A balancing act

Although still in the early stages, some tricky questions have already arisen for the committee members, including the age a student should have to be to go by a different name or pronoun at school without parent permission – and whether parent permission should even be required at all.

It brings up a unique dilemma; how to balance the right of the parent to be involved in their child’s education with the student’s right to keep information private. According to district policy, parents have every right to have input in their child’s education, and that the responsibility is “shared by the school and family during the entire period the child spends in school.”

Yet in some circumstances, policy advocates say it could be in the best interest of the student for schools to keep some information private.

“In some instances, when you have parents who are not in favor of this and if they find out, they may take more aggressive steps, i.e., ‘you’re not allowed to live in my house anymore.’ That’s one of the balancing things we need to look at,” Fischer-Anderson told board members at the Nov. 9 meeting.

“I feel like something that stops a bunch of kids from coming out is having to tell their parents,” Dunlap said Thursday.

Most of the policies adopted by other New Hampshire districts choose to not specify an age or to spell out what should happen when there is a parent-student conflict, Belken’s research shows. Some, like Fremont School District, have decided the transition from middle to high school marks the line where students can make their own decisions.

From Belken’s perspective as a policy advocate, referring to a student by their chosen name or pronoun at school is a simple step to making a student comfortable, and doesn’t have to be a big deal.

“Schools are a place of safety,” Belken said. “If that is something that makes them feel comfortable, that is a real basic thing that students should be able to expect at school.”

Belken added that thinking of name switches as a gender issue complicates something that isn’t all that complicated.

“Even students who aren’t trans, there are a lot of instances of students who have different nicknames than what their name is. If it does not cross this gendered line, nobody thinks about that,” Belken said. “Then when you start going from a masculine to a feminine name, teachers are bringing in their own bias about when students are valid or not.”

Moving forward

As they continue the process of putting together a draft policy, Communications and Policy Committee members will hear input from students – specifically students in the Tide Pride organization – and parents.

As per board policy, the committee will bring a recommended policy proposal to the full board for a first reading, and the policy will be voted on at a second meeting, after a second reading.

In the meantime, Dunlap says Tide Pride continues to advocate for change, and raise awareness about the challenges LGBTQ students face in school.

“I’m not the first trans student at Concord High, and I will not be the last,” Dunlap said. “I feel like it needs to be known. That’s what Tide Pride has been working on, making everyone more aware.”

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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