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Betsy DeVos: It’s Your Job to Protect All Students — and That Includes Transgender Students

Dear Secretary DeVos, 

You have a crucial position–ensuring that America’s children attend high quality schools and are prepared to contribute successfully to society as thoughtful, engaged citizens. Central to that mission is ensuring that students are safe so they can do their best to learn.

As you’ve said, the Department of Education has a “unique role in protecting students.” We believe that, right now, you have an opportunity to honor that unique role—by ensuring that your department is protecting all students.

In your first address to your department, you set a high standard: “We believe students deserve learning environments that foster innovation and curiosity, and are also free from harm. I’m committed to working with you to make this the case.”

If you are truly committed to creating safe learning environments for students, then that should mean all students, including transgender students. We urge you to read the new report, report as co-authored by the Movement Advancement Project (MAP) and GLSEN, in partnership with the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) and the National Education Association (NEA). The report, Separation and Stigma: Transgender Students & School Facilities, outlines the profound harms of exclusionary policies on transgender children—harms that can be addressed with your direction. 

There are an estimated 150,000 transgender youth between the ages of 13 and 17. These transgender students, as well as those who are younger, are part of school communities throughout the country, and like other students, they’re there to learn, graduate and prepare for their future. When schools fail to protect transgender students from discrimination and bullying—or when schools deny transgender students access to restrooms that match the gender they live every day—it becomes extremely difficult for transgender students to succeed in school. If transgender students cannot safely use the bathroom, they cannot safely go to school.

Your department’s decision to rescind the “Dear Colleague” letter that instructed schools to allow transgender students to be able to access sex-segregated facilities such as restrooms and locker rooms in accordance with their gender identity sends a clear message: transgender students are excluded from your charge to protect students.

And this decision was not neutral; the federal government sets an example. Emboldened by your department’s action, a number of states have sought to pass legislation limiting transgender students’ access to school restrooms and locker rooms. To date, seventeen states have introduced such legislation. Although the text of the bills varies, they are designed to stop transgender students from using facilities that match the gender they live every day. Singling out transgender students and telling them they must use separate restrooms is humiliating and discriminatory. Similarly, forcing transgender students into restrooms that don’t match the gender they live every day puts their safety at even greater risk.

And, excluding transgender students is needlessly harmful. As hundreds of school districts around the country have proven, ensuring transgender students can use the restroom at school jeopardizes no one’s safety, but rather it affirms the humanity and most basic needs of the students in our country’s schools.

School administrators have long worked to ensure that transgender students have access to facilities that match their gender identity while still protecting the privacy and safety of all students. In addition to local school districts that protect transgender students, 13 states and the District of Columbia prohibit discrimination in education based on gender identity and sexual orientation. These state laws protect transgender students from discrimination by staff, faculty, and students, including being unfairly denied access to facilities.

That’s why administrators representing schools and districts from 31 states and the District of Columbia, collectively responsible for educating approximately 2.1 million students annually, submitted an amicus brief in the Gavin Grimm case stating that their collective real-world experience shows fears around inclusive policies are baseless. The administrators informing the brief submitted the following argument:

“[A]llowing all students to access sex-specific facilities and amenities that match their gender identity will lead to general disruption; will violate the privacy or “comfort” of other students; or will lead to the abolition of gender-segregated facilities and activities for all students. [They] have addressed and in some cases personally grappled with many of the same fears and concerns in their own schools and districts. However, in [their] professional experience, none of those fears and concerns has materialized in the form of actual problems in their schools. Instead, inclusive policies not only fully support the reality of transgender students’ circumstances, but also foster a safer and more welcoming learning environment for all students.”

Safety and privacy are important concerns, but as you know, having inclusive school policies doesn’t affect schools’ legal obligation to ensure safe facilities or ability to act if a student engages in inappropriate behavior. There has been no increase in safety risk for students resulting from transgender-inclusive non-discrimination.

The same cannot be said of schools that have left this matter unattended to. When schools fail to protect transgender students from discrimination and bullying—or when they deny transgender students access to restrooms that match the gender they live every day—it becomes extremely difficult for transgender students to succeed in school and prepare for their future. Three-quarters of transgender students surveyed in GLSEN’s 2015 National School Climate Survey felt unsafe at school. In the same survey, seven out of ten transgender students surveyed said they’d avoided bathrooms because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable. 

When transgender students are forced to use bathrooms that do not match their gender, or when they are barred from communal facilities altogether and told to use a separate facility, they are singled out for discrimination and harassment, and transgender students are already vulnerable to hostile school environments.

Secretary DeVos, we know you care about protecting students. Parents, transgender youth, and research demonstrate the tangible and intangible harms that come when transgender students are left to fend for themselves at school. It is time for your department to live up to your vision. It is time to provide school districts around the country with clear guidance about their obligation to ensure transgender students can not only survive in school, but thrive. While adults argue about whether we can implement policies already proven successful in hundreds of school districts nationwide, it is transgender students who pay a heavy personal price.

Signed,

Movement Advancement Project
GLSEN
National Center for Transgender Equality
National Education Association

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Image of cover of Separation and Stigma, with "Secretary DeVos: Read the Facts!" and glsen.org/readthefacts