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Helping Schools Ensure the Civil Rights of Transgender Students

May 13, 2016
Courtesy of Vanita Gupta, Head of the Civil Rights Division and Department of Education Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon

By the time Landon – a high school student in Massachusetts – entered his freshman year, he had already been in and out of the hospital for multiple suicide attempts.  He had been pulled out of school because he wasn’t able to get through the day and he needed medication to sleep.

Today, Landon is back in school – a vocational school he transferred to as a sophomore, after coming out to friends and family as a transgender boy – and things have gotten a little easier for him.  Landon’s new school is committed to treating every student with dignity and respect, and together they have found ways to allow Landon to survive and thrive in his new surroundings.  But getting there has taken time and the path hasn’t always been clear.

In recent months, we’ve heard from a growing chorus of educators, parents and students around the country about the need for guidance on how schools can successfully support transgender students and non-transgender students in compliance with federal civil rights laws.  In fact, just this week, the National Association of Secondary School Principals called for the Department of Education to release guidance and best practices on creating an inclusive and respectful environment.  Schools want to do right by all of their students and have looked to us to provide clarity on steps they can take to ensure that every student is comfortable at their school, is in an environment free of discrimination and has an opportunity to thrive.

Today, in response to those requests, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education released joint guidance to schools explaining how federal law prohibiting sex discrimination affects schools’ obligations toward transgender students.  The Department of Education also released a compilation of examples of ways that schools across the country are already successfully supporting transgender students.

The resources we released today give schools like Landon’s the guidance they’ve been asking for to navigate issues they may be confronting for the first time.  The departments’ legal guidance identifies the key requirements that schools need to keep in mind to comply with Title IX and other federal laws.  The companion document offers real-life examples of how schools are making sure transgender and all students have a safe and respectful learning environment.  Both documents show that protecting transgender students’ right to be who they are does not harm other students; instead, they show that equality for transgender students is not only required by law but achievable through common-sense approaches that foster safety and a positive learning environment for all students.

The documents address common questions – like how to handle educational records of transgender students and how to address harassment of transgender students.  They also highlight sensible ways that schools around the country have been able to address concerns from other students and parents without infringing upon transgender students’ civil rights.  The guidance does not require any student to use shared bathrooms or changing spaces, when, for example, there are other appropriate options available; and schools can also take steps to increase privacy within shared facilities.  And it reiterates that Title IX does not prohibit medically- and scientifically-sound requirements to ensure physical safety and competitive fairness in school sports.

Taken together, we hope these new resources provide clarity for everyone – from state and local leaders to educators to students and families – about how to create a safe, welcoming and supportive learning environment for every student.

Dear Colleague Letter on Transgender Students

Examples of Policies and Emerging Practices for Supporting Transgender Students

Topic(s): 
Civil Rights
Component(s): 

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Updated March 3, 2017