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Navigating Cultural Conflicts: Schools Struggle to Support Transgender Children and Their Families

published January 23, 2023

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Navigating Cultural Conflicts: Schools Struggle to Support Transgender Children and Their Families

Transgender Support in Schools: Balancing Student Needs and Parental Rights
Jessica Bradshaw discovered that her 15-year-old had transitioned at school after she saw a homework assignment with a new name on it. When she asked about it, the teenager revealed that for the past six months, teachers and administrators at his high school in Southern California had been addressing him with male pronouns and allowing him to use the boys' bathroom, all at his request. Bradshaw was confused and wondered why the school had not informed her or sought her permission. She was later told by a counselor that the student had requested that his parents not be informed and that the school was following district and state policies to respect his wishes. Bradshaw said, "There was never any word from anyone to let us know that on paper, and in the classroom, our daughter was our son."
A Parent's Surprise: Learning of a Child's Transition at School
The Bradshaws were surprised to find themselves in conflict with the school over their right to be informed and have a say in such a significant change in their child's life. This disagreement illustrates the challenges that school districts are facing in how to support transgender children, as they navigate cultural conflicts over gender and sexuality.

While the Bradshaws came to accept their teenager's new gender identity, they had concerns, particularly when their child requested hormones and surgery to remove their breasts. They were worried about the complexity of the decision, as the teenager had previously been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, PTSD, and anxiety. The child had also struggled with loneliness during the pandemic and the Bradshaws were worried that their child had not fully figured out their identity, as they had changed their name and sexual orientation multiple times.

Given the complexities of the situation, Jessica Bradshaw felt upset that the school made her feel like an inadequate parent for questioning whether the school was qualified to guide her minor child through such a significant change. She felt that it should have been a decision made by the family. The student, now 16, stated that the school provided him with an environment where he could be himself, which he did not have at home. He had tried to come out to his parents before but they did not take it seriously, so he asked for support from the school.

"I understand why schools have to hide it from parents or do it without permission, but it's not ideal," the student said. "Schools are trying to do what's best to keep students safe and comfortable. When you're trans, you feel like you're in danger all the time. Even though my parents were accepting, I was still scared, that's why the school didn't tell them."

Although the number of young people identifying as transgender in the United States is still small, it has nearly doubled in recent years. Schools are facing pressure to support the needs of these students while navigating a divisive political climate, where both sides warn that one wrong step could result in irreparable harm.

Navigating Complexities: The Bradshaw's Struggle with their Child's Transition
The school that Jessica Bradshaw's son attends is one of many in the country that allows students to socially transition - change their name, pronouns, or gender expression - without parental consent. Districts have stated that they want parents to be involved but must abide by federal and state guidelines to protect students from discrimination and violations of their privacy.

Schools have cited research that shows inclusive policies benefit all students, as a reason for using students' preferred names and pronouns. Educators also argue that they feel morally obligated to affirm students' gender identities, particularly in cases where students do not feel safe coming out at home.

However, several parents whose children have socially transitioned at school have reported feeling villainized by educators who seem to think that they, not the parents, know what is best for their children. They argue that educators should not intervene without notifying parents unless there is evidence of physical abuse at home. Some parents did not want their children to transition, while others were open to it, but felt that the schools were moving too quickly and that they couldn't express their concerns without being shut out or labeled as having an "unsafe" home.

Many LGBTQ+ youth advocates argue that parents should stop placing blame on schools and instead question why they don't believe their children. They argue that it is more important than ever to ensure that schools provide adequate support for transgender students, particularly in the face of legislation that limits their access to bathrooms, sports, and gender-affirming care.

These conflicts are taking place as Republicans focus on "parental rights," which refers to the decisions parents make about their children's upbringing. Conservative legal groups have filed a growing number of lawsuits against school districts, accusing them of failing to involve parents in their children's education and mental health care. Critics argue that groups like these have worked to undermine public education and eliminate the rights of transgender people.

Inclusive Policies vs Parental Involvement: The Debate Surrounding Transgender Support in Schools

The issue of how schools should address gender identity is not limited to one political ideology, parents of all political persuasions have found themselves disturbed by what schools know and do not disclose.

Jessica Bradshaw said she does not align herself with Republican lawmakers who want to ban LGBTQ rights, but she also felt as though her school's policy left no room for nuance.

"It is almost impossible to have these discussions," Mrs. Bradshaw said. "There is no forum for someone like me."

Other liberal parents have registered as independents or voted for Republican candidates for the first time because of this issue. Although they haven't sued, some have retained lawyers affiliated with the largest legal organization on the religious right to fight their children's schools.

Transitioning socially, Dr. Anderson wrote, “is a major and potentially life-altering decision that requires parental involvement, for many reasons.”

She stated to the Times that despite her reservations about collaborating with conservative lawyers, she was willing to do so in order to advocate for parents. She emphasized that she did not want to be disregarded as a transgender person and did not want anyone to have their identity taken away from them. However, she felt that in this situation, her alignment with those advocating for parents was more important.

According to Justin Driver, a Yale Law School professor and author of a book on the constitutional conflict in public schools, this debate highlights the fact that the interests of parents and their children are not always the same. He noted that these cases exemplify how these interests can drastically differ, even when it comes to fundamental issues of identity.

Not All Children in This Area Have Safe Spaces at Home

The guidelines for social transitioning in schools vary greatly among different districts. Some states, such as California, New Jersey, and Maryland, have laws in place that prohibit schools from disclosing information about a student's gender identity without their consent, while other states have anti-discrimination guidance that is open to interpretation.

The Times interviewed over 50 individuals, including parents, their children, public school officials, and lawyers for both LGBTQ and conservative advocacy groups. In cases where parents requested anonymity to protect their children's privacy, The Times took extra steps to verify their claims.

One mother in California shared that her teenager's teacher had sent messages through the school's web portal encouraging the student to seek medical care, housing, and legal advice without the parents' knowledge. A lawsuit filed against a school district in Wisconsin included a photo of a teacher's flyer posted at school that read, "If your parents aren't accepting of your identity, I'm your mom now."

At schools in states such as Michigan and New York, parents reported that teachers had used a student's new name in class but the old one with them, so that the parents would not be aware of the change. However, other states, such as Florida, Alabama, and Virginia, have passed laws or issued guidance that prohibit schools from withholding information about gender identity from parents.

A recent national survey conducted by the advocacy group GLSEN found that harassment and hostile school environments for LGBTQ youth have a direct negative impact on their mental health and academic performance and that there has been a decrease in resources available to them in schools. Some parents of transgender students said that it is a struggle to ensure that their child's school will offer enough support.

Jeff Walker, a father in Alabama who was aware of his teenager's transition, said that through his child's mixed experiences at different schools, he learned how crucial it is for teachers to affirm transgender students, especially those whose parents don't want them to transition. He added, "Not all children in this area have safe spaces at home."

Some teachers have faced penalties for notifying parents that their children changed names and pronouns at school. One father in Massachusetts, Stephen Foote, said he only learned that his 11-year-old had done so after the child's sixth-grade teacher, Bonnie Manchester, confided in him. Ms. Manchester was later fired, in part for disclosing "sensitive confidential information about a student's expressed gender identity against the wishes of the student," according to her termination letter.

Mr. Foote sued the school district, accusing it of violating his parental rights. A lawyer for the district said that it disagreed with Mr. Foote's version of events. Ms. Manchester said she did not regret her actions and added, "I shined a light on something that was in the dark. I was willing to lose my job."

Other teachers believe that they have a moral responsibility to withhold such information. Olivia Garrison, a history teacher in Bakersfield, California, who is nonbinary and has helped students socially transition at school without their parent's knowledge, said, "My job, which is a public service, is to protect kids. Sometimes, they need protection from their own parents."

A Hard Thing to Navigate
There is a network of online support groups for parents of transgender children who have reservations, some with thousands of registered members. Critics have labeled these groups as transphobic because some of them advocate for banning gender-affirming care for minors and amplify voices that refer to transgender advocates as "groomers."

However, members of these groups claim that these are some of the only places where they can ask questions and express their concerns.

Recently, a meeting of one such support group was held in Westchester County, just north of New York City. In a member's living room, 12 mothers and one father shared their experiences of feeling excluded by their children's schools.

One mother said her middle schooler had secretly changed names and pronouns without her knowledge, despite her working as a teacher at the same school. Another mother shared how high school teachers had concealed her teenager's social transition from her until graduation because they believed she wouldn't be supportive. A mother of a 14-year-old who had spent time in an inpatient therapy facility said she had sent the school a letter from the student's psychiatrist outlining concerns that the school had ignored.

Most of the parents at the meeting identified as liberal, and they felt that the living room was a rare safe space for them to voice their fears. Some parents didn't think their teenagers were truly transgender, while others believed it was too soon to know for certain. Most said their children had mental health conditions, such as bipolar disorder or autism.

In this space, they could ask questions such as: What if their children had been unduly influenced by their classmates to request hormone treatments and surgery? What if teachers were encouraging students to see their families as unsafe? And were right-wing conservatives their only sympathetic audience?

One mother, who was in tears, said, "It's just been such a hard thing to navigate because, on the one hand, I'm dealing with my very extreme liberal values of individuality, freedom, expression, sexuality, wanting to support all of this stuff. At the same time, I'm afraid of medicalization. I'm afraid of long-term health. I'm afraid of the fact that my child might change their mind."

As other parents nodded in agreement, the lone father in the room said, "It's politically weird to be a very liberal Democrat and find yourself shoved in bed with, like, the governor of Texas.
We Were Always Available

Earlier in the year, Mr. Perez said, the school had notified them that their child was lagging behind academically. So why was this different? “We were always available,” he said. “I don’t know why they decided to hide this from us.”

Mr. Perez said that although he was a Catholic who opposed his child transitioning on religious grounds, he respected the rights of families who disagreed with him because he believed it was up to parents to decide on such matters.

A representative from the district stated that it had investigated the matter and found that the accusations in the lawsuit “are completely false.” In court filings, the district stated that it had never compelled the sixth-grader to speak with a counselor or conceal the meetings from parents.

Courts have ruled that under the Fourteenth Amendment, parents have the right to make medical and mental health decisions for their children, as well as direct their education and upbringing in other ways unless they are abusive or unfit. However, lawyers for schools have argued that parental rights are not absolute. Under the Biden Administration, the Department of Education has said that discriminating against students based on gender identity violates federal policy, although its guidance doesn’t specifically address parental rights.

The American Civil Liberties Union has also argued that it’s unconstitutional for public schools to reveal a student’s gender identity to others. An A.C.L.U. lawyer, Jon Davidson, who is co-counsel for a school district that was sued by parents in Wisconsin, said that angry parents can put their child in private school or home-school them.

“Parents don’t have a constitutional right to dictate to schools how they should create an optimal learning environment for students,” he said.

This was the same point that Todd Gazda, who at the time was a Massachusetts superintendent, made during a tense school board meeting before he and his district were sued by Mr. Foote, the father of the 11-year-old who said he had learned about his child’s new gender identity from a teacher, who was later fired.

“For many of our students, school is their only safe place,” Mr. Gazda said during that meeting, “and that safety evaporates when they leave the confines of our buildings.” Concerns over parental rights, he added, are in fact thinly veiled “intolerance and prejudice against L.G.B.T.Q. individuals.”

Judges have dismissed many of the lawsuits. In December, a federal judge threw out Mr. Foote’s case, writing that affirming a student’s gender identity was not necessarily a medical intervention or even evidence of social transition, but “simply accords the person the basic level of respect expected in a civil society generally.”

However, the judge acknowledged that “it is disconcerting” that school administrators might “actively hide information from parents about something of importance regarding their child.”

In January, Mr. Foote filed an appeal.

The son of Mrs. Bradshaw, the mother in Southern California, said he had empathy for parents who found it hard to accept that their children were transgender. But he also expressed frustration.

“When parents say they need time or patience it can feel kind of like an excuse for them to keep misgendering you,” he said.
When Students Change Gender Identity, and Parents Don’t Know
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