Feature stories

Transgender policy starts with respect for all

Devon Shanley (left) and Milo Chesnut were instrumental in implementing an all-gMiller PhotographyDevon Shanley (left) and Milo Chesnut were instrumental in implementing an all-gender bathroom policy at the Brooklyn School for Collaborative

The social justice committee at Brooklyn Collaborative helps create a safe and aMiller PhotographyThe social justice committee at Brooklyn Collaborative helps create a safe and affirming environment for all students and staff. Members include (clockwise from bottom left) Shanley, Assistant Principal Amanda Boege, Candice Simon, Lesley Crawford, Taron Williams, Adam Chawansky and Chesnut, Making a school safe and affirming for transgender students and teachers starts with making it that way for everyone, says teacher Mitch Klages-Bombich.

It’s important “to address the whole school climate and culture” and to teach social justice, says Klages-Bombich, who is transgender and works for the Positive Learning Collaborative, a joint DOE-UFT initiative that supports schools in creating a positive learning environment.

At the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies, policies designed to foster mutual respect and cultivate empathy among students of different backgrounds paved the way for practices specific to the needs of transgender people.

An Outward Bound school that also is part of the Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools for Excellence (PROSE) program, Brooklyn Collaborative practices restorative justice. “Our core values are open-mindedness, courage, kindness, collaboration, persistence and responsibility,” said middle school English teacher Devon Shanley, who is transgender.

In pursuing its goals, the school has an affinity for circles. There are courage circles and kindness circles, where students and staff talk about what it means to be both those things and how some people are neither. “A lot of people say, ‘Oh God, more circles, more talking,’” relates Shanley, “but we’ve been able to combat negative words with positive words.”

There are also pronoun circles.

Milo Chesnut, a high school science teacher at Brooklyn Collaborative who identifies as nonbinary and uses they, them, their pronouns, saw the need for a system of sharing the names and pronouns of students schoolwide and creating best practices for teachers on how to support students. “Respecting someone’s pronouns should be a normal part of our culture,” said Chesnut.

After talking and sharing in a circle, the students list their names and pronouns on a Google survey, as well as the names and pronouns they would like teachers to use when speaking with their parents to ensure they are not put in danger by being outed.

“Saying he or she can literally save somebody’s life,” Shanley said.

Brooklyn Collaborative also has a staff social justice committee. It’s a space, says Chesnut, where educators can practice unfamiliar teaching concepts, such as gender.

That space also was instrumental in “discussing, organizing and implementing” ideas such as all-gender bathrooms, Shanley said.

The issue of bathroom access — particularly in schools — has emerged as a vehicle for opposition to transgender rights. The Trump administration rescinded Obama-era guidelines directing public schools to assure transgender students equal access to school bathrooms. That move prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to void a lower-court ruling allowing a transgender boy access to the boys’ bathroom at his Virginia high school. While the legal battles play out, Brooklyn Collaborative’s all-gender bathroom policy is working.

“People thought it would be awkward,” said Shanley, but it’s been very helpful for many students and for staff.

Brooklyn Collaborative’s restorative practices focus on conversation. “Students are used to sitting in circles and discussing difficult topics,” said Chesnut. So even though the content of a discussion may be unfamiliar, the process isn’t.

The school also has a Gender and Sexuality Alliance, which provides transgender students with a safer space in which to be heard and to find allies.

DOE guidelines call for respecting students’ asserted names and pronouns, including in student records and other paperwork. DOE policy also emphasizes students’ privacy rights and prohibits harassment or discrimination, guarantees equal access to restrooms and locker rooms consistent with students’ gender identities, and provides for educational resources and other supports on LGBTQ issues for parents, students and educators.

Ultimately, however, any school can only do so much. At Harlem Renaissance HS, a transfer school in Manhattan, math teacher Bahar Akyurtlu’s efforts to support her transgender students have run up against broader challenges.

“Young trans women have certain priorities, especially when they are starting to transition,” said Akyurtlu, who is transgender and a UFT delegate. Their priorities, she said, are things like hormone replacement therapy and gender-affirming clothing. “All of those things involve money and none involve school.”

Akyurtlu cautioned that, as a result, transgender students sometimes sacrifice school attendance for income. But the welcome they find — or the lack thereof — when they do attend can make a difference. “If they encounter a hostile school environment, they’re going to stay away permanently,” she said.

To reach these students outside the classroom, “there are a lot of partnerships we could make,” Akyurtlu said. On her wish list is a manual of resources, “so guidance counselors know where to refer students,” and the integration of transgender-specific issues into the regular health curriculum.

The American Federation of Teachers, the UFT’s parent organization, and NYSUT, its state affiliate, both have passed resolutions about creating and supporting safe school spaces for LGBTQ students.

It’s important, said Klages-Bombich, to have policies in place so that instead of reacting to situations, “we can respond to needs.”

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