The concept of transgenderism is highly charged at this time in history, with debates sparked by this topic touching on politics, athletics, mental health and more. Ideas that appear self-evident to the vast majority of humans — such as why basic words like pronouns include a gender value, how to ensure privacy and safety while using the bathroom and the assumption that “sex” and “gender” are synonymous — are both chilling and challenging to any transgender person, and awareness around these issues has led to increasingly visible public conversations in recent years. One of the ways that resistance to this concept manifests is “transphobia,” a word that can be misleading insofar as it doesn’t refer to clinical anxiety disorder, such as agoraphobia; it’s more similar to “xenophobia” in that it describes a set of negative attitudes directed at a particular group. While New Paltz is seen by many within and outside of the community as being especially progressive and welcoming, stories that are now being told suggest that trans youth here, at least, experience transphobia as acutely as do their peers in other locales.
Broadly speaking, a person who is transgender doesn’t conform to societal expectations of a binary gender system that conforms to biological sex. As described in a 2011 report from the National Center for Gender Equality titled Peer Violence and Bullying Against Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Youth, gender identity is seen in how an individual presents. “Like any other girl, transgender girls express their gender identity through their clothing, hairstyles, mannerisms and the name they choose to go by; the same is true of transgender boys.” While estimates suggest that only a very small number of people identify as transgender — one to six of every thousand — they are disproportionately victims of violence. Studies such as School Climate for Transgender Youth: A Mixed Method Investigation of Student Experiences and School Responses, published in 2010, find that harassment of transgender youth in schools is “pervasive.”
The mother of one New Paltz transgender student, MaryJo Martin, spoke publicly at the April 14 New Paltz Village Board meeting about how such students struggle in this district. As a result of that, one transgender New Paltz student agreed to be interviewed on the condition that a pseudonym be used. Another ultimately chose not to participate, with that child’s parent advising that it was due to fear of being exposed as transgender and targeted.
Martin explained at last week’s meeting that New Paltz was intentionally chosen as a place to settle the family because it’s a “less conservative” community, but Martin’s transgender child has had the experience of frequent bullying including slurs, misgendering by students and adult staff members alike and the general sense that the high school is not an accepting environment.
In 2019, the advisor of the school’s Pride Alliance described the student body as “mature” and “accepting” of gender nonconformity. It was a time when some faculty bathrooms had been repurposed for gender-neutral student use, when there was a program called “CAFE” that provided an alternative to eating lunch in the main cafeteria and board members were in serious discussion about bringing in experts from Family of Woodstock to institute a restorative justice program, which was seen as having better long-term outcomes than punishing students for being mean to one another.
Then, everything changed when the coronavirus attacked.
“My grade is known as the meanest,” said the eleventh grader who shall be called “Josh” for reasons of privacy and safety. The younger grades are also less kind than the kids who came before the pandemic, Josh has been led to believe. What this looks like for Josh is being called “fag” on a near-daily basis, even by those who call Josh friend, with it being passed off as “just dark humor.” For Josh, it has much more of an edge than humor, and some days it takes regular encouragement from a parent via text message just to get through the day. It’s not explicit threats of violence; it’s “death by a thousand cuts.”
A concern that Martin brought up at that Village Board meeting was the fact that those gender-neutral bathrooms just aren’t as accessible as they might be. Having been converted from faculty bathrooms they have doors that can be locked with a key, and that turning the key the wrong way after opening it will ensure that it locks automatically once closed. Transgender children are not the only ones who don’t feel safe in large, single-gender bathrooms, and this reporter was apprised of several students who frequently had to find an adult to unlock the private bathroom — frequently enough that it’s led to physical problems in some cases.
It’s clear that Martin’s gotten some attention; at the Village Board meeting was Linda Oehler-Marx, the deputy superintendent for education, and others including Dana Katz from Family of Woodstock. Katz had presented information about restorative justice programs to the board of education less than a month before the pandemic shutdown began. According to Mayor Tim Rogers, this was also a topic of discussion at the town-gown meeting of local and university officials.
Martin sees this as a potential “legacy” to help future students, understanding that change takes time. For one, it appears that the locks on the gender-neutral bathrooms will be changed to resolve that ongoing issue.
Restoring the CAFE program that gave students an alternative to the sometimes chaotic cafeteria could take time; that space has since been converted to be used in mental health care that is sorely needed since the shutdown. That space would be a welcome respite for Josh, who finds that the cafeteria — along with time in the halls and on the bus — are among the most stressful. Josh is too young to have taken advantage of that space, but if Jim Tinger of the town’s youth program succeeds in getting it restored, then that may change.
Martin also expressed frustration at how difficult it is to get school officials to complete reports as prescribed under the Dignity for All Students Act, to document and track incidents. One was taken recently, but Martin said that there have been multiple incidents over two years that school officials have declined to document in this manner. Each report is supposed to trigger an investigation and there should be feedback following its conclusion.
Josh is actually considering whether it might be better to finish school somewhere else, which is consistent with what was found in the School Climate study. The authors of that paper wrote, “For many [non queer] young people, decisions about schooling are based on considerations of academic rigor, opportunity for extra-curricular activities or proximity to home. The youth in these groups were making school decisions based on the acceptability and safety of the school environment for queer youth. In effect, access to schools that may provide certain resources (e.g. AP classes, marching band) was not available to many youth in the groups because of the unsafe climates in those mainstream schools.”
While it appears that school officials are open to making changes and listening more carefully to the needs of students, it’s not at all certain if any changes that occur will happen soon enough to benefit Josh and others who are in the high school right now.
Response from the school district
In his weekly e-mail to the New Paltz Central School District (NPCSD) community, Superintendent Stephen Gratto confirmed that the high school and middle school have single all-gender bathrooms available.
“At NPCSD we believe in making our school a place of acceptance for all individuals,” wrote Gratto. “One fact that I wanted to share with you that you might want to share with your student is that we have single-occupancy all-gender bathrooms in both buildings. In the high school we have one all-gender bathroom upstairs and one downstairs. Private locations can also be accessed in the high school nurse’s office. In the middle school there are six all-gender bathrooms.”
In an e-mail to Hudson Valley One, Gratto did not specifically address issues raised by MaryJo Martin or Josh, but offered a broader option for school issues.
“The New Paltz Central School District encourages any parents or community members who have questions about anything related to school to contact the school directly,” Gratto said. “Bringing concerns to an administrator, teacher, or counselor is the best way to get information and to get issues resolved.”
— with additional reporting by Crispin Kott
School board hears concerns about the district’s Racial Equity Initiative Advisory Committee
The possibility of the Racial Equity Initiative Advisory Committee (REIAC) moving forward without student representatives is a concern, say some members of the New Paltz Central School District (NPSCD) community.
In a letter read by NPCSD Board of Education (BOE) President Johanna Herget, several former student reps to REIAC and other community members detailed why it’s crucial to have the input of those most impacted by racial inequity on the committee.
“As founding members of REIAC, we have no doubt of the importance of student representation as key to the efficacy of REIAC and to the needed connection between the BOE and what’s happening with the communities of color in our district,” read the letter. “Before the creation of REIAC, students came out and spoke directly to the BOE asking for a seat at the table. They wanted a student presence to create accountability as they felt the adults involved needed their perspective when creating policies that affected them directly. The students didn’t feel heard.”
After REIAC was founded, the student representatives to the committee said they felt it was their duty to address district policy and protocol. Furthermore, they felt like a needed conduit between the students and the School Board and district administration.
“As individual members appointed to REIAC, any community member could approach us and share what they were experiencing,” read the letter. “The students with daily lived experiences within the walls of the high school were often our eyes and ears to what was happening. And the issues they presented would likely have gone unaddressed had they not brought it to REIAC’s attention and consequently shared with the Board. They felt safe to express what they needed to.”
Included in the letter were examples of issues students felt comfortable bringing to a student member of REIAC, including “a popular event built around racist material” that students felt unable to address with teachers, and a climate survey that “missed the mark and disenfranchised the greater student population.”
The letter noted that as far back as the first REIAC meeting in May 2018, “students testified that traditional roles of support social workers and teachers were not viable resources; many students better trusted their peers or one or two known teachers.”
That there are currently no trustees of color on the School Board only deepens the need for student voices, “with lived experience in the circle of influence.”
“Please keep the students and community members of color as a priority in REIAC,” read the letter. “We ask that you actively recommit to advertising and encouraging students and community members of color to join to make REIAC a more engaged and connected resource.”
Trustees did not directly address the letter or student representation on REIAC during the School Board meeting, and according to the summary of a REIAC meeting held on Tuesday, April 11, the matter did not arise there either. The next REIAC meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, June 13.
— Crispin Kott