ConVal guidance on transgender student names draws questions

  • ConVal High School. (Benji Rosen/ Monadnock Ledger-Transcript) Benji Rosen

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 11/21/2022 2:47:17 PM

Guidance for teachers relating to transgender students created by the ConVal School District has raised questions about whether it adequately protects student confidentiality.

On Nov. 8, teachers received guidance outlining ways to handle transgender students’ needs and rights regarding a variety of situations, including name changes. That procedure would have required staff to have permission to use students’ preferred names and required support to be available if a student disclosed a name change to staff but not to their parents. It also says the district “shall encourage prompt disclosure to the parents,” and that the staff member should then share the information regarding the student’s name change with a building administrator.

The guidance states: “If a minor student asks district staff and/or administrators to keep information relating to their transgender or gender-non-conforming status from their parent(s)/guardian(s), the district staff/administrator should not make any promises concerning confidentiality to the minor student.”

One week later, a clarification was issued that requires staff to notify Director of School Counseling Terri Drogue if the student is being referred to by their preferred name in class but the teacher is communicating with parents by the student’s legal name. If staff are currently referring to a student by their preferred name and communicating with parents using this name, nothing additional is necessary. Regarding students who do not wish to have their preferred name used in emails and/or calls to their home, teachers are asked to contact Drogue. 

Director of Student Services Cari Christian-Coates said the district has been in the process of rolling out a procedure for more than a year and that what was released Nov. 8 was not intended as a formal document. 

“This is a procedure that guides people through a process,” Coates said, drawing a distinction between procedures and policies dealing with issues such as attendance that tell a principal what to do. “This procedure is the result of staff questions and is intended to provide help for teachers, students and families.”

ConVal High School Science teacher Elizabeth England, who runs the Inclusivity Club, formerly the Gay Straight Alliance, at the high school, said she heard from students about a month ago that they were afraid the district was going to impose a policy that would “dead-name” them. Dead-naming is referring to a transgender or non-binary person by a name they used prior to transitioning, such as their birth name. According to England, this can be harmful for students’ wellbeing.

“This is emotional for me,” England said. “At least 20 students are going through the process and it’s not easy with or without support. I think this was done in the best interest of the school district so they don’t get sued and not for the kids.”

A lawsuit filed by a Manchester mother against city schools over a policy that prevents officials from informing parents about their child’s transgender status without the student’s permission was dismissed in September by Hillsborough Superior Court Judge Amy Messer on the grounds that the right to make decisions about the care, custody and control of one’s child is not absolute. That case was appealed to the New Hampshire Supreme Court on Oct. 25, and a motion to proceed using the pseudonym “Jane Doe” was granted. 

Rex Schwab, a non-binary high school student at ConVal who is part of a transgender support group that meets at the school, said England informed students about the school district’s procedure and began handing out pamphlets that included the procedure as well as a list of student rights. 

“Most teachers are not happy about [the procedure] and they have spoken out,” Schwab said, adding they believe students should always feel comfortable talking with their teachers. “The fact that the administration is trying to make teachers talk to parents about our transgenderness is not comfortable. If someone wants to be out at school but not at home, there’s a reason for that. It improves their mental health to be out at school. It’s not a place for teachers or the school to be involved because then kids won’t feel safe going to the school for their problems.”

Schwab, 16, said they are very active in school performances as well as trans rights.

“We’re supposed to be able to go to our teachers whether it’s educational or mental-health related, and teachers or staff aren’t supposed to report us unless there is physical harm or someone else is in physical danger,” they said. “This breaks that trust a little bit because we don’t know what [administrators will] report back to our parents specifically with trans matters.”

Schwab goes by their chosen name while at school and uses gender-neutral bathrooms.

Attorney Chris Erchull of GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) in Boston, said a number of lawsuits dealing with similar issues as the one in Manchester are circulating around the country. Erchull said there is no definite law that parents have the right to information regarding a preferred name. He did, however, refer to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which requires schools to share certain information regarding student records when requested by a parent. Under FERPA, parents or eligible students – when they reach age 18 -- have the right to inspect and review the student's education records maintained by the school.

“Schools could be under a legal obligation,” he said, explaining that typically this only happens in cases of truancy or when physical danger of some kind is present or  when a student has committed or is the victim of a crime.

Public schools, Erchull said, are government entities like police stations and other entities. He cited he case of Sterling v. Borough of Minersville in 2000, where a police officer’s threat to disclose a young person’s sexual orientation to a family member – “an intimate aspect of his personality entitled to protection” – violates the young person’s privacy rights, and resulted in suicide.

Erchull said that ideally most people agree that a young person who is navigating their gender identity should have support and resources to be able to have conversations at home, but that even when this is the case, it can take a long time. Providing students that time, he said, is the right way to go.

“That’s GLAD’s position,” he said, explaining that his firm filed an amicus brief with the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts in a case where the plaintiffs, the parents of a student who they claim concealed their gender identity with the help of the Town of Ludlow School Committee, who is the defendant in the case. GLAD’s argument in the brief rests in large part on whether the plaintiffs can demonstrate that the defendants’ conduct “shocks the conscience,” and is “deliberately indifferent.” This, GLAD argues, is a high bar that also requires consideration of the various interests involved – those of the school, the students and the parents. 

The suit also cites research showing that disclosures can potentially undermine the parent/child relationship by depriving students of the chance to share information on their own terms.

“We should be working for the well-being of students,” Erchull said. “It’s not the best idea to impose immediate notification because this can have a bad outcome on students and families. And it’s sad to take away that important moment.” 

Christian-Coates said the point of the procedure isn’t to out students,  but that FERPA creates a “fine line” between what must be disclosed or not disclosed. 

“We know they are at high risk,” she said. “We’re trying to support kids who need  support. But we can’t lie to parents. There was never an   intention to create  a procedure that would out kids.”


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