The idea for a session to educate the Columbus community about individuals who identify as transgender resulted from backlash last year from parents who objected to gender identity being a protected class in Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. schools.

Licensed therapist Becky Waletich addressed the issues parents raised about selection of restrooms and locker rooms, except she approached it from the standpoint of safety of the transgender individual, rather than the cisgender students. Cisgender is a person whose gender identity, expression or behavior matches that of their assigned sex at birth.

“This is about safety,” Waletich told the group assembled for Transgender 101 at the Columbus North High School cafeteria. “A kid is not going to learn if they are in an environment where they are terrified or constantly judged.”

Waletich said cisgender individuals have never been at any risk from transgender individuals in restrooms or locker rooms.

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“The safety issue goes the other way,” she said.

Securing privacy

Some schools offer a transgender student a separate restroom, such as in a nurse’s office, which is often another way that singles them out among their peers, Waletich said. And many times the restroom is too far from classrooms, meaning a student may have to risk being late to class, she said.Locker rooms are another area where safety is a concern because of the level of undressing that occurs and the vulnerability everyone, not just transgender students, feel with that, she said.

Waletich advised offering the transgender student an option other than the standard gym class, something that involves a sport or physical activity that does not place them in a situation where they could feel unsafe, such as undressing in a locker room.

She mentioned she had heard one school corporation had installed changing curtains for students who wanted a private area to change clothes — not just for transgender individuals, but for everyone.

During consideration of the May 2016 decision to change the BCSC policy language, groups of parents attended school board meetings to protest the change, with a few saying they would pull their children out of the school corporation.

The parents contended there would be risks to female students if biological males who identified as females were allowed to use girls’ restrooms. Some parents suggested male students who chose to identify as girls would do so to enter female restrooms to leer or sexually harass female students.

BCSC Superintendent Jim Roberts said a small number of families removed their children from BCSC schools after the language change.

“Of course, every child that leaves our school corporation is a concern to us, and that is significant,” he said.

Roberts was hired as superintendent after the policy language change was approved by the board. However, conversations about the language change continued with parents and families after former Superintendent John Quick’s retirement last summer.

As facility renovations are being considered at Columbus area schools, locker rooms and restrooms are among the items that are being considered for privacy upgrades, Roberts said.

“When we’re renovating, we want to take advantage of any opportunities we have to make these areas more private,” he said.

The local school corporation is continuing its policy of working with students and their parents individually on issues involving transitions and identifying as transgender at school, he said.

Teacher comes to learn

Tammie LeClerc, a BCSC middle school teacher, asked how she as a teacher could make her students feel more comfortable in her classroom, particularly when she has 30 or more students in a room at a time.Waletich said there are ways for teachers to communicate to transgender students that they are in safe space in the classroom and the teacher is a person they can trust.

“Clue them in,” she said of teachers talking to students. “Tell them, ‘Let us know the name that is appropriate for us to use for you — introduce yourself with gender pronouns.” When that happens, the student typically feels comfortable to introduce with gender pronouns.

After the session, LeClerc said she also appreciated several transgender students in the audience sharing what made them feel safe and comfortable at school.

“It just breaks my heart, some of the things they share,” LeClerc said. “I just know as a teacher I want to be aware, and I want to make sure they are comfortable in my classroom.”

Tips for teachers

The school environment offers challenges to transgender students and their families. Licensed therapist Becky Waletich, who specializes in gender variance, offered some guidance and tips for teachers who want to make sure transgender students feel safe and comfortable in the classroom.

  • As the school year begins, ask students what name they wish to go by in the classroom, and what pronouns are correct. Have a conversation with the student and get clued in to student’s circumstances.
  • Teachers need to be careful when talking to parents, particularly if the parents don’t realize the student is transitioning to a new gender identity with or without the parent’s knowledge. “There are many children who are outed by teachers — the kid is having trouble in class and makes a call home and uses the name the child prefers,” Waletich said. “Kids can get a beating or thrown out of their homes over that.”
  • Substitute teachers who are unaware of an agreed-upon preferred name for a student may address them by their legal name in front of the classroom, revealing that student’s transition. This is a tricky situation, but one that can be handled through some prior communication and planning.
  • The simple practice by some teachers of dividing a classroom by gender, boys with boys and girls with girls, becomes a potential minefield for a youngster who is transgender, Waletich said. “Do I out myself or go to the other side,” Waletich said of those students.
  • Another common classroom practice, life span assignments, require students to have a timeline of pictures that show a student growing up. For some students, this might mean having photos showing a student with one gender appearance in one time frame, and a different appearance in another.
  • Uniforms: Some schools insist on gender-specific uniforms. Gender-neutral options are an alternative that is encouraged.

Source: Licensed therapist Becky Waletich of Greenwood

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.