How to Ensure a Safe School Year for Michigan’s Transgender Kids

This week, our two youngest children boarded the bus for the first day of school. My husband, Pete, and I waved good-bye through the school bus window, and hoped that this school year will be as good as the last. That their school will continue to be a safe place where they feel comfortable being their authentic selves.

As a teacher myself for more than 20 years, I know these are the hopes of most parents. Our desires as parents and our children’s essential needs are universally felt despite the diversity of our families and our children. That is why I am so confused and heartbroken by the controversy surrounding transgender children. My son Jacq is transgender; assigned female at birth, but asserting insistently, consistently and persistently that he was a boy as soon as he could speak. After educating ourselves as parents through reading and visits with mental health professionals, Jacq socially transitioned to live as a boy at age 4.

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The August before Jacq began kindergarten, Pete and I met with our school’s principal, Craig McCalla, whose life’s work is creating a school environment where all students feel safe.  McCalla worked with us to ensure that Jacq’s essential needs would be met, so he could focus on learning and developing lasting friendships. With such caring and inclusive educators, it’s no surprise Jacq loves school and is thriving academically and socially.

Unfortunately, not all transgender kids have quiet heroes disguised as principals leading their schools — a heartbreaking 82% of transgender youth feel unsafe at school, and with good reason.  Michigan’s LGBT students are surrounded by homophobic language and transgender slurs on a daily basis, often from the very teachers charged with educating them. Nearly all transgender youth have been verbally harassed at school, over half have been physically harassed (pushed or shoved), and 26% have been physically assaulted (punch, kicked, or harmed with a weapon).

With this painful reality, it is no surprise that transgender students are more likely to miss school, be less academically successful and have lower academic aspirations than their peers. Students whose main concern is maintaining their safety while at school simply cannot focus on learning.  Safety is a prerequisite for learning.

The daunting challenges of school, often coupled with lack of parental and/or community support can lead to depression, anxiety, self-harm and all too frequently, suicide.

The realities for transgender students may seem bleak, but they don’t have to be.

 Research shows enacting practices like those outlined in the Michigan State Board’s Guidelines for Safe and Supportive Learning Environment for LGBQT Students can reduce incidences of bullying and harassment, allowing all students to thrive. These practices include anti-bullying policies which specifically name sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.  They include enacting policies that allow students to use bathrooms and facilities that match their gender identity. Best practice also encourages the creation of affirming student clubs like Gay Straight Alliances.  Another integral component in creating safe and affirming schools is providing professional development for educators on creating inclusive environments for LGBTQ students.

And guess what?  These inclusive policies not only benefit students who identify as LGBTQ, they have been shown to reduce bullying for all students. When parents and educators prioritize the value of diversity, our children and our students follow our lead.  As we prepare for another school year, we must remember that the need to be valued for what makes each individual unique is a universal need our children share. Our differences are the common thread that unites us and collectively make us stronger.

Sarah Tchoryk is an elementary school instructional coach. She lives in Dexter with her husband, Pete, and their children.