Jennea's story is a potent reminder of the difficulties that transgender youth face in school, and the need for clear and consistent policies and training that protect their right to a safe, respectful and inclusive learning environment.
Hawaii, which is fortunate to possess a rich cultural tradition that embraces gender diversity, has at least a basic framework of laws that protect people across the gender spectrum. But the state legislation that explicitly prohibits discrimination based on gender identity or expression in employment, public accommodations, and housing does not yet encompass schools. And although the State Department of Education has a general policy, there is no further guidance on what would constitute discrimination in a school setting. This absence of any specific rules or training by the Department of Education left Jennea's principal free to interpret the regulations according to her own beliefs.
Nationwide, the majority of school districts have yet to offer any consideration whatsoever for transgender and gender nonconforming students. Worse, many states, including Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Washington and Wisconsin, are now considering legislation that would bring the same sort of discriminatory measures - made infamous by North Carolina's recent “bathroom bill” - specifically to schools. The Wisconsin bill goes so far as to require school boards to designate each changing room in their facilities “for the exclusive use of pupils of one sex... as determined by an individual's chromosomes.”
This lack of protection leaves transgender youth vulnerable to discrimination and mistreatment. Not surprisingly, ninety percent of them feel unsafe at school, and one-in-three have been physically assaulted. More than half have at some point avoided going to school due to harassment, and one-in-six have left school altogether, losing their best shot at a solid future.
It doesn't have to be this way. School districts around the country have developed guidelines and best practices, such as those presented in GLSEN's transgender model district policy, that protect the right of all students to a safe and secure education. A recent study of seventeen school districts, covering 600,000 students, that implemented such protections did not reveal a single incidence of the “confusion, harassment, or inappropriate behavior” that conservatives had predicted. Indeed, the United States Department of Education has advised schools that failure to treat students consistent with their gender identity leaves them open to legal prosecution under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
Since Jennea's video first appeared on Youtube, other students, teachers, and counselors, as well as a highly placed administrator, have come forth to corroborate her experiences at Kahuku High School. Fortunately, Jennea is a strong young woman, with a wonderfully supportive family and friends, and was able to complete all senior year requirements and receive her diploma with the same date as her classmates.
But a diploma is no substitute for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to walk at graduation, or the joy of appearing with your friends in a viral video. Those are gone forever.
This is why we started an online petition calling for the Hawaii Department of Education to establish clear and consistent guidance that will ensure that all students are safe, included and respected in school, regardless of their gender identity or expression. They should also conduct training, professional development and educational activities to ensure that this policy is known and implemented, and that teachers have the knowledge and tools they need to do right by their students.
As opponents of fairness and equality stir fear about transgender people for political purposes, it's up to open-minded places like Hawaii to demonstrate that respect for diversity and inclusion across the gender spectrum is not just right, it makes us stronger.
You can help by signing this petition.