On Tuesday the New York State Education Department released a document instructing teachers and school employees on how to treat transgender and gender-nonconforming students. The move comes three weeks after Gov. Andrew Cuomo sent a blistering letter to state education officials expressing his anger at a New York Civil Liberties Union report detailing “serious and pervasive” harassment against transgender students. Cuomo accused the department of not doing enough to apply the state’s Dignity for All Students Act, which has been on the books for five years and “seeks to protect public elementary and secondary school students with a safe and supportive environment free from discrimination, intimidation, taunting, harassment, and bullying.”
In response, the department released “Guidance to School Districts for Creating a Safe and Supportive School Environment for Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Students,” which promotes, in great detail, fostering “an educational environment for all students that is safe and free from discrimination—regardless of sex, gender identity, or expression.” The document rehashes Title IX, a federal statute that prohibits sex discrimination, and lays out the basic principle that the “person best situated to determine a student’s gender identity is the individual student,” with no supporting evidence necessary.
It is recommended that schools accept a student’s assertion of his/her/their own gender identity. A student who says she is a girl and wishes to be regarded that way throughout the school day should be respected and treated like any other girl.
The wide-ranging document, full of illustrative examples, covers pronouns and names (teachers should use the ones the student wants) as well as restrooms and locker rooms (students should use those of the gender they identify with) while cautioning against segregating trans students in unisex restrooms. There are definitions, like “Assigned Sex at Birth: the sex designation, usually ‘male’ or ‘female,’ assigned to a person when they are born,” and “Cisgender: an adjective describing a person whose gender identity corresponds to their assigned sex at birth.” The document details best practices concerning gender-based dress codes (if at all possible, get rid of them) and measures to protect students’ privacy (particularly if their parents don’t know of their gender identity), like keeping two separate sets of records, one with the birth name and one with the chosen name.
There is nothing really novel in this document; it’s just the Education Department’s formal articulation of pre-existing laws. And New York is by no means the first state to grapple with extending Title IX protections to LGBT students. Massachusetts has issued similar guidance, as have Connecticut, Washington, and California. (Quite a few other states have nondiscrimination laws that specifically protect gender identity, though the majority of them haven’t issued this type of guidance yet.) But can a 12-page document actually cut down on bullying?
Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy at the National Center for Transgender Equality, said, “We have heard from parents, school staff, and administrators that in general they find guidance like this to be very helpful. It addresses concrete everyday questions that a lot of people have that if they are handled correctly, then everything can be smooth and a non-issue. If it isn’t handled correctly, it can create a real barrier to opportunity.”
The guidance also comes in handy, she says, for “administrators who want to do the right thing but didn’t feel fully empowered to do so without having something to point to when parents or others in the community come to them with questions or concerns. Principals feel much more comfortable when they know they can say, ‘This is what we’re doing, this is what’s happening across the state.’ ”