The Obama administration’s recent guidance on the treatment of transgender students ignited a firestorm of response, tapping deep visceral feelings on both sides of the issue.
But enter the school building, and you see there are no “sides.” Just kids.
The public debate about whether to uphold the rights of transgender students rings hollow to school leaders, who commit to seeing each unique child and creating the school conditions in which each child can succeed. That commitment is not limited just to students who look or behave in ways our culture labels normal. It’s for all kids.
We can’t ignore the research that reveals transgender students are more likely to feel unsafe and be victimized in school. And fear for their safety causes one in three of these students to miss at least one day of school each month. The research links a 90 percent school attendance rate closely to academic success, so more absences means less learning, lower grades, and a smaller chance of success after high school. In short, kids who live in fear don’t learn very well.
In light of these details, the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NAASP) adopted a position in support of the rights of transgender students and requesting the federal government to clarify the law.
Fundamentally, the NASSP position statement reaffirms that school leaders must create conditions in which all students—and transgender students especially—feel secure enough to learn at high levels. That security extends to simply visiting the restroom that aligns with the student’s gender identity.
Many schools across the country have already figured out ways to make this happen. In some cases, schools establish gender-neutral restrooms. In other cases, schools safeguard the privacy of all students by setting up curtained stalls available to all students in common facilities. Some buildings do not allow for easy solutions and require greater structural intervention.
And in all but very few cases, the changes make no difference to the students in the school—not nearly the difference it seems to make in state legislatures.
I am aware of not a single instance of harm to a student using a facility with a transgender classmate. If such an incident were to occur, principals would deal with it, not as a gender-identity issue, but as a discipline issue—as they would any misbehavior.
Yet, school bathrooms and locker rooms have become ground zero for the transgender-rights war.
Some states have gone to extraordinary efforts to “protect” students from a phantom threat.
One North Carolina school district board went so far as to arm senior girls with pepper spray to protect themselves from transgender students in restrooms and locker rooms.
As a school leader, I can attest that the potential for harm from hundreds of random pepper-spray canisters in a school is far greater than the “problem” it purports to solve.
Such overreactions reveal a greater concern, however: They implicitly label transgender students as criminals. That label is inappropriate. That label is damaging. That label emerges from an irrational fear of the “other” or the “not like us.”
As a principal, my greatest fear is our collective failure to maximize the human potential of the students our policies push to the margins.
The president’s guidance seeks to embrace these marginalized students, and I applaud him for that. But our greatest victory will be when stop seeing those kids and recognize they are all our kids.
Michael Allison is president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals and a high school principal in Pennsylvania.