Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Education rescinded Title IX transgender student guidance enacted by the Obama administration last year. While the move doesn’t eliminate the rights of students under federal law, it may have left people wondering what it will mean in New York, and specifically in local school districts. According to everyone from the governor to local school officials and activists, it’s not likely to change anything here.
Rob Conlon, a Kingston High School graduate, is co-chair of the Hudson Valley chapter of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a national education organization founded in 1990 that’s focused on ensuring safe and affirming schools for LGBTQ students by educating not only students, teachers and school officials, but also the community as a whole. Last week, GLSEN responded to the Trump Administration’s move by sending out an e-mail covering nine ways to respond to the rescinding of Title IX guidance, including being proactive, observant, vigilant and supportive.
“With or without the Title IX guidance, we are here to stay,” read the e-mail. “Continue to show the Trump Administration that we were here long before them and will be here long after. Continue to show trans young people that we have their backs and we aren’t going anywhere. Continue to be that beacon of hope, the stable foundation, and the champions in the arena.”
While the issue will likely impact school districts in other states more deeply, Conlon said he didn’t expect anything to change in New York, in part because the state was already ahead of the curve.
“Almost two years ago now the New York State Education Department released their own guidelines about transgender and gender nonconforming students, and those guidelines basically mirrored what the feds released last year,” Conlon said. “In July 2015, school districts had already started moving in the direction of making these changes in terms of restroom and locker room access, pronoun usage, and all that sort of stuff, and most of the school districts we work with here in the Hudson Valley were already on that path and had been for two years now. For many of them, the federal guidance was sort of reiteration of the rights that we were already working towards.”
Saugerties Central School District Superintendent Seth Turner said in an e-mail that the district remained dedicated to the safety and well-being of its entire student population.
“While the guidance provided by the US Department of Education may vacillate under a new administration’s interpretation of the Title IX, our commitment to [sic] ALL students remains steadfast,” Turner wrote. “Saugerties Central School District is a place where all children are welcomed — and are nurtured — with the goal of providing the best quality education possible. District policy and practice strictly prohibits discrimination, and all children should feel safe as they enter our learning environment.”
KCSD Superintendent Paul Padalino agreed that he didn’t expect the federal decision to change anything in New York.
“We know and it’s been repeated by the State Education Department and the governor, is that New York State, our guidance remains the same,” Padalino said. “Obviously we would like the federal government to be in support of these guidelines, but they’ve said this is a state’s rights sort of situation, and New York State has spoken on this subject. We don’t see any change in how we’re operating, and we don’t see how it will impact our students.”
Conlon said that in an already progressive state, the Hudson Valley stands out and it was important for students who may be more fearful than they were before to know they’re not alone.
“We’re pretty lucky here, even more so than in other parts of the state, in that we already had an out and vocal LGBTQ adult population,” he said. “The invisibility factor is not there. We’re really sort of ahead of the curve here, and that’s what we encourage schools to think about, that as hard as it seems or as hard as it looks like it’s going to be, we’re already so many steps ahead that it’s almost impossible to go back.”
But even locally, acceptance isn’t universal. Last year, a pair of single-stall faculty restrooms at New Paltz High School were designated as gender neutral; according to school officials, the signs on the bathrooms have been vandalized on more than one occasion. Conlon said the vandalism had a familiar feel.
“It really is the same exact stuff we used to see when a gay-straight alliance was being formed,” he said. “It fits all of the same sort of tactics and approach, it’s just with transgender and gender-nonconforming students. So our advice is always to do what you can to identify who is doing the harassment or the vandalism, and obviously follow your protocols to deal with that. But also to really strengthen your students and empower them to continue to work towards changing the school climate.”