Maryland Schools respond to transgender mandate

Posted at 6:16 PM, May 13, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-13 18:18:06-04

The Obama administration directive Friday that public schools must allow transgender students to use the bathroom matching their gender identity, is somewhat familiar to schools in Maryland.

In October 2015, the Maryland Department of Education issued guidelines to better provide safe spaces for transgender students. The guidelines are being implemented by Howard County Public Schools, but according to Equality Maryland, not all districts have been in compliance.

“Right now it seems to be falling to the county to determine how they want to follow,” said Kami Wagner, the acting instructional facilitator for school counseling at Howard County Public Schools.

Beginning this spring, Wagner has been involved in training sessions with principals in every school to better educate them on gender identity protections and how to address concerns by students or parents about transgendered students using school bathrooms and locker rooms.

“All of our students have a right to privacy and a right to feel safe, so if a non-transgender student is feeling uncomfortable, we can offer them alternatives as well. I think it's about offering choice and offering places for all of our students to feel safe, both our transgender students and non-transgender students,” said Wagner.

Related: Dept. of Education says schools must allow transgender student bathroom use

Those options weren’t always available for Catherine Hyde’s transgender daughter when she attended Howard County Public Schools.

“My child transitioned in Howard County schools a long time ago, she's 23 now and she transitioned I think at age 16,” said Hyde, who is also the mid-Atlantic regional director for PFLAG, an advocacy organization that supports LGBTQ rights.

Hyde approached the school about ways to make the adjustment easier on her daughter, Whitney, and at the time, school officials decided that it would be best for her to use separate restrooms and changing facilities.

“She had no place where she felt she could change safely, so she ended up changing in the dance closet of the dance room,” said Hyde.

The school’s practices changed several years later, and Hyde was ecstatic to see the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice directing all schools to follow suit.

“Oh gosh, it means the world! It means that these kids are going to be who they are and not be reminded five, or six, or eight times a day that they’re different and that people are afraid of them. It means they’re just going to be accepted and they can focus on studies,” Hyde said.

However, new policies take time to implement and Wagner said there will be obstacles in ensuring that gender identity protections are being practiced in every school district.  

“It's a challenge because we know there's a lot of personal values tied to these issues but when it comes to our students we really want to make sure they're safe and feel welcome and are in a very respectful environment for them, for every student,” Wagner said.

A ruling in April by a federal appeals court also required schools in the state to allow any student to use bathrooms according to their gender identity versus biological sex.

 According to the letter issued by the U.S. Department of Education, schools not in compliance could risk losing federal funding.