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October 1, 2019
Vol. 77
No. 2

Rethinking Conventions: Keeping Gender-Diverse Students Safe

With two gender-nonconforming kindergartners entering his school, a principal found he had to change his thinking.

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EquitySocial-emotional learning
"Would you allow our son to wear a dress to school?"
This was the question, at heart, that started our school's journey. The question that challenged my thinking and pushed me out of my comfort zone. The question that sparked a quest for information on a topic about which I had little knowledge.
That process of inquiry ultimately led to a significant cultural change in the K–5 elementary school where I was principal and to a much-needed shift in my own thinking on school safety.
But let me back up and explain how this all played out. It was mid-June, the end of my first school year as a principal. I was finishing up some paperwork when our school psychologist, Tracy Zelenetz, walked into my office with a knowing look on her face. She sat down, looked at me steadily, and said, "Anthony, I have something that I want you to ponder."
Tracy calmly relayed a conversation she had had that afternoon with one of our teachers, who told Tracy to expect a call from a parent of one of the students in her classroom. This student had a younger brother who would be a kindergartner in the fall. The parent had told the teacher that this prospective student, as a general habit, liked to wear dresses, and she inquired as to our policy on this. Not knowing the answer, the teacher suggested the parent contact Tracy.
Now, as she sat across from me, Tracy too wanted to know what our policy was.
As I listened to her, many thoughts ran through my mind. What initially came out of my mouth, however, is not something I am proud of. I believe my exact words were, "How could she do that to her son?" I realize now how shallow and uninformed this sounds, but let me explain: I was looking at this through the wrong lens. Instead of viewing this specific situation in terms of what the child might need, I initially viewed it in terms of the obstacles it would present him. I immediately imagined this child being bullied or ostracized, and I didn't want to see that happen. In my mind, allowing this child to wear a dress to school would only lead to unnecessary social-emotional hardship.
I felt confident in this admittedly condescending view until Tracy calmly posed a follow-up question: "What message would we be sending if we didn't allow it?"
It was a question I wasn't prepared for, but I'm grateful it was asked. I had been so preoccupied thinking about what might happen to this child that I didn't pause to consider the bigger picture—or his own circumstances. It was at that moment that I realized I had much to learn.
Fortunately, the phone call didn't come for another two weeks. This gave us a little time to begin immersing ourselves in the research on gender identity and to think through how to ensure the safety and social-emotional needs of this student. During this time, we learned of a second gender-nonconforming student, another boy, who would be entering our school in the fall.
We soon arranged a meeting with the parents of the first child. After we discussed some basics about the school, there was a pause, a shared look between the parents, and then the mother asked that question: "Would you allow our son to wear a dress to school?" She explained that her son felt most comfortable when dressed in female clothing, which they supported.
Tracy responded by asking the same question she had posed to me only weeks before: "What message would we be sending if we didn't allow it?" We didn't have all the answers, but by this point on our journey, we knew we could convey our acceptance of their child's gender expression and a willingness to address any challenges that arose. As Tracy spoke, the parents' sense of relief was palpable.

Eye-Opening Research

Our research had introduced us to a new language. Most people are familiar with the word transgender, but there are many other terms used to connote gender identity, including gender nonconforming, gender fluid, gender expansive, genderqueer, cisgender, and gender variant. Like much else in this area of understanding, the terminology is evolving and inconsistently applied, which can be confusing at times. But perhaps the most important lesson we gleaned from our immersion in the literature was the idea that gender is not the binary concept (where someone is either a girl or a boy) that most of us have grown up believing it to be. Researchers say that given its multidimensionality, it is more accurate to view gender as existing on a continuum or spectrum (Bockting, 2008; Connell, 2009; Harrison, Grant, & Herman, 2012).
But being outside of perceived gender norms creates confusion for many gender-diverse students. While most transgender individuals are aware before age 10 that their gender identity does not align with their physical anatomy, many don't realize there is a name for this disparity until the age of 15 (Gender Spectrum, 2016). This suggests that a transgender child might spend up to seven years believing he or she is alone in this experience.
Indeed, many gender-variant children keep their affirmed gender secret. In one major survey, 71 percent of transgender individuals said they hid their affirmed gender identity or their social or physical transition due to a fear of harassment or discrimination. In addition, 57 percent of the participants reported that they were delaying their transition to their affirmed gender identity for the same reason (Grant et al., 2011).
Relative to the general population, gender-diverse children are at higher risk of victimization, including physical, emotional, and sexual abuse (Greytak, Kosciw, & Diaz, 2009; NASP, 2014; Orr & Baum, 2015), which in turn is linked to further adverse outcomes such as anxiety and depression, declining academic performance, school avoidance, substance abuse, risky sexual behavior, and suicidal ideation (Dubois & Losoff, 2015; Russo, 2016). In one study, half of transgender students surveyed reported missing at least one day of school per month because they felt unsafe (Greytak, Kosciw, & Diaz, 2009). The statistics on transgender students and suicide risk are particularly alarming. A study recently published by the American Board of Pediatrics found that nearly half of all male and nearly a third of female transgender adolescents reported attempting suicide (Toomey, Syvertsen, & Shramko, 2018).
This is where the research hit home for me. I have always believed the culture of a school is as important as its academic instruction, since culture provides the foundation upon which learning occurs. Students must feel safe to be available for learning. They need to feel validated and nourished in order to thrive. A school's culture can also foster invaluable life skills like respect, acceptance, and handling challenges.

Making a Plan

To support our gender-nonconforming students, Tracy and I knew we needed a plan that deliberately laid out steps that would promote acceptance. We ultimately pieced together a framework for accepting and supporting transgender students in our school that was based on our research. It was built around four best practices.

Best Practice #1: Build Gender Literacy

The most important thing that building leaders can do when trying to create a mindset shift of any kind is to increase their own knowledge base. As stated, this was the first thing we did. Tracy and I gathered a wide range of materials on gender identity, using resources made available by such organizations as Gender Spectrum, the Human Rights Campaign, the ACLU, and the National Association of School Psychologists. As our knowledge increased, so did our confidence. We began to feel more competent when discussing the topic and, more important, more comfortable in our ability to offer a safe and welcoming environment for the gender-diverse children who came into our care.
Once we had adequately educated ourselves, it was time to educate the staff. This was a critical step. Not only would every teacher in the building come into contact with these students at some point, but they would likely also be the ones other students turned to with questions.
We were in the final days of school at this point—not the most opportune time to launch a new staff-training session. But I also realized how important it was to start the conversations right away so my staff could ask questions, share thoughts and concerns, and have the summer to further process the information. I called a meeting for the second-to-last day of the year.
Tracy created a PowerPoint that highlighted key information on gender and included a video of one family's personal story. The presentation was an emotional one. The teachers were completely silent throughout, and some shed tears as the video played. I followed by providing very general information about the two students who would be entering our school in September, sharing what I was able to. There were some questions, but mostly silence. I could almost see the wheels turning in the teachers' minds as they thought about what they had learned.
The next day, the last day of school, Tracy arrived to find a teacher waiting at her office door. She had some questions. This teacher was soon joined by another and then a third. It seemed that these teachers had gone home and thought about the issue or shared the information with their own families, which generated more questions and thoughts. Most of their questions stemmed from unease about how they would address questions that came their way from their own students or parents of their students. We addressed these questions as best we could, going over what we had learned about gender-identity differences and emphasizing that these students needed to be accepted for who they are, just like all other students. This process continued over the summer, with Tracy and I receiving regular emails or texts with questions or ideas. Thanks to this ongoing conversation, we felt that staff was well-versed in the many sensitive issues around gender identity by the start of the new school year.

Best Practice #2: Respect Gender Identity and Expression

To provide a welcoming environment for our gender-diverse students, we needed to demonstrate, and model for others, respect for their diversity. As a building leader, I was also aware that the tone of a building is set by what you allow, what you stop, what you ignore, and what you reinforce.
Tracy and I gave a lot of thought to what routine practices might need to change to better support students who may not fit traditional gender roles. In addition to putting our teachers on alert for possible teasing or bullying incidents, we also asked them to listen for and immediately address any derisive or segmenting comments related to gender (for example, labeling a toy as a "girl toy" or "boy toy"). The message we wanted to impart was that different people like different things, and this is OK. Colors are colors, toys are toys, and it's OK to like whatever it is you like.
That became our mantra during that school year (at one point, to echo the message, our physical education teacher, a superbly athletic male, started wearing bright pink gym shoes). The message was particularly impactful in the kindergarten class where our gender-nonconforming students were placed. In addition to occasional female clothing, these students wore nail polish and sparkly necklaces. One often drew self-portraits of himself in which he had long hair and wore a dress. One frequently wore a winter hat with long golden braids attached. The other had a pink lunch box. On pajama day, they both wore nightgowns.
At times other students were overheard asking about these behaviors, but we found that even among the older students, our mantra was accepted since it was provided in a consistent and matter-of-fact manner. Before long, staff members were sharing stories of self-expression and acceptance among students.
To reinforce the message of inclusion and non-bias, we also asked our staff to reconsider how they managed some of their everyday tasks, such as lining students up, calling them to the carpet, or giving out classroom materials (such as stickers or coloring sheets) based on standard gender differences. We even asked teachers to rethink the use of "boys" and "girls" as sorting labels when forming lines, groups, or giving directions. Alternatives included using table colors, row numbers, "line buddies," or, my favorite for the older grades, simply telling students to "Line up however you want, just make sure you are quiet!"
Perhaps most daringly, we made an important change to our kindergartners' Thanksgiving Feast event, an annual performance and celebration that is attended by parents. In the past, the convention was to have all the boys make pilgrim hats for this occasion, while the girls made bonnets. But that year, we let students choose to make whichever one they wanted to wear. When the big day came, as expected, our gender-nonconforming boys donned bonnets. What we didn't expect was that a few other boys did as well, while some girls chose to wear pilgrim hats.
As the students paraded into the cafeteria to start their show, I braced myself for the parents' reaction. I expected audible gasps, whispers, perhaps pointing, maybe some laughter, and a bit of negative chit-chat about my job security. But while I think some parents were a little taken aback, the response was mostly muted and even positive. I realized that our work during the previous months to support gender inclusivity, which we had discussed with the PTA, had fostered an accepting environment in the school community. Besides, what really mattered to the parents was that the children were happy and engaged.

Best Practice #3: Balance Personal Views with Professional Roles

We were committed to creating an environment that fostered acceptance for all our incoming students. This was not a new territory for us since our school enrolls students with multiple disabilities. However, gender nonconformity was new to us, and I was keenly aware it was a charged issue for many.
It isn't always easy to contemplate a different perspective, particularly one that challenges a conditioned belief system. But as educators, and particularly as building leaders, we have a responsibility to protect all students under our care regardless of our personal beliefs. The truth is that any potential discomfort we or others may have dealing with gender issues head-on does not outweigh a student's right to be safe and feel included. School leaders and teachers alike must respect students' right to inclusion and must operate with their best interests in mind, particularly in the case of those who are vulnerable to bullying and mental health issues.
Tracy's words to my initial reaction continued to resonate with me and guide my thinking. They helped me reframe my perspective on what school safety really means, helping me put students' needs above my own insecurities and biased perceptions of what's "normal."

Best Practice #4: Establish a Sense of Safety

This final practice was the culmination of the various steps we took to establish a welcoming environment for our students. We had read the literature pertaining to mental health concerns in gender-diverse students, and we already knew that children who are different from their peers are at risk for verbal and physical harassment. We also knew that students need to feel safe in order to thrive. So effectively establishing a sense of overall safety was at the heart of the commitment to these children—and all our students.
Taking the time to educate and unify our staff (including our lunch monitors!) was a key part of this commitment. Throughout the year, we asked staff to remain vigilant to instances of teasing or harassment, and consistently reminded all students that it is not acceptable for anyone to tease or otherwise bother them in any way. Tracy and I also took time to form personal relationships with our new gender-nonconforming students, something we do with any student we believe might be susceptible to teasing. Doing so provides these students with an outlet to talk about their feelings and concerns, and it allows us to affirm that each is accepted and appreciated as they are.
It was in this forum that one of our new students confided that he was being teased on the bus. A few of the other students were referring to him as a "boy-girl," while another, a neighbor of his, had told other kids that he played with "girl toys" at home. We were grateful that we had established enough trust with this new student that he felt comfortable telling us about the situation. We, in turn, were able to validate his desire to play with whatever toy he wished and reinforce his right to be treated with respect on the bus or anywhere else. I met with the students who had been doing the teasing and quickly realized that I had an opportunity to educate them through empathetic conversation. The outcome was more beneficial than if I had simply provided punishment.
Above all, creating a climate of safety and acceptance is only possible if we address any threatening behavior swiftly and effectively.

A Lesson in Inclusion

The kindergarten students who entered our school that year are now 5th graders, and our two gender-nonconforming students are thriving. The years have brought moments of challenge for them, but many more moments of joy. At our school, they are accepted for who they are, and they have taught us all a lesson in diversity and inclusion.
I am aware of personal growth as well. Over the past few years, I've found myself thinking in ways I would not have anticipated. I am way more sensitive to gender-identity differences—and indeed to personal differences of any sort—and I find I'm eager to engage in challenging conversations about the topic with other adults. I'm not an expert, but a learner who continues to educate himself and evolve.
Maybe this is what true school safety demands of us.
Author's Note: Tracy Zelenetz contributed to this article.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ Have you ever had your values or assumptions challenged by the needs of a student? How did this change you as an educator?

➛ Can you think of longstanding practices or conventions in your classroom or school that may alienate gender-nonconforming or other marginalized students?

➛ Ciuffo says his experiences accommodating two transgender students changed his thinking on school safety. What do you think he means by this?


Bockting, W. O. (2008). Psychotherapy and the real life experience: From gender dichotomy to gender diversity. Sexologies, 17, 211–224.

Connell, R. W. (2009). Gender (2nd ed.). Malden, MA: Policy Press.

Dubois, C. & Losoff, R. (2015). Safe school environments for transgender students. Communique, 44(1).

Gender Spectrum. (2016). Gender inclusive schools: Child development and research. Retrieved from http://www.genderspectrum.org

Grant, J., Mottet, L., Tanis, J., Harrison, J., Herman, J., & Keisling, M. (2011). Injustice at every turn: A report of the national transgender discrimination survey. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Transgender Equality & National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

Greytak, E. A., Kosciw, J. G., & Diaz, E. M. (2009). Harsh realities: The experiences of transgender youth in our nation's schools. New York: GLSEN.

Harrison, J., Grant, J., & Herman, J. L., (2012) A gender not listed here: Genderqueers, gender rebels, and otherwise in the National Transgender Discrimination Study. LGBT Policy Journal at Harvard Kennedy School, 2, 13–24.

National Association of School Psychologists. (2014). Safe schools for transgender and gender diverse students. (Position Statement). Bethesda, MD: Author.

Orr, A., & Baum, J. (2015). Schools in transition: A guide for supporting transgender students in k–12 schools. Human Rights Campaign.

Russo, F. (2016, January/February). Transgender kids. Scientific American, 27–35.

Toomey R. B., Syvertsen, A. K., & Shramko, M. (2018). Transgender adolescent suicide behavior. Pediatrics, 142(4).

Anthony Ciuffo (Ciuffoa@wantaghschools. org) is the principal of Wantagh Middle School. Follow him on Twitter @ACiuffoJr.

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