During a time when many people are rethinking what it means to identify as a man, woman or gender-fluid person, a set of suggestions for dealing with students and teachers in the Anchorage School District who do not identify with their birth sex has sparked much debate recently. But the school district says a document called "Working with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Students and Employees" has been circulated among employees for years.
It was made public in late July and has since become fodder for social media, radio hosts and political figures. But ASD said the guidelines are just those: guidelines. ASD said they are not meant to be applied to every case and are simply a list of resources, applicable federal and state laws and suggestions for helping all students, transgender or not, navigate their school days without fear for their safety or well-being.
"It's the same as what we do to make sure kids are not discriminated against because of race or nationality or ability," ASD executive director for EEO compliance and Title IX coordinator Margo Bellamy said Thursday.
Bellamy said the guidelines help principals and other school district staff create an action plan for anyone who may have an issue relating to gender conformity. And Bellamy said it is a growing need. She said she helped with 102 cases regarding transgender issues in the 2014-2015 school year – almost 100 more than the district handled in 2008. Some of those were for students, others for employees, she said. Each was initiated by a transgender student or employee, and not the result of a complaint from someone else.
The guidelines lay out federal protections in both anti-discrimination clauses and Title IX athletic rules – meant to ensure equal opportunities for student athletes of any gender.
One of the most common misconceptions, Bellamy said, is that kids can be forced to share a bathroom or locker room with someone who makes them uncomfortable. Bellamy said if a parent or child has an issue with the arrangements, they too can ask the district for a plan to address their own concerns. The same accommodations (allowing a student to use a different bathroom or a single-occupancy bathroom) are available to all students who show a need, Bellamy said.
But Bellamy said bathroom use is definitely not the primary concern for transgender students and employees, or for anyone else at ASD, for that matter. The biggest issue is far more personal and goes to the very heart of how people present themselves to the world.
"It's how they are respected … being called the name they want to be called, and by the pronoun they want to be called, and how are we able to translate that," Bellamy said.
Bellamy said by law, the district can only list a student under his or her legal name and gender. Any changes to a transgender student's records would require legal documents (birth certificate, legal name-change forms) be presented to the district. But Bellamy said the district can use a nickname feature on the student's records so that in person, at least, the student or employee is addressed in a manner in which he or she feels comfortable.
And although the needs of transgender students and employees have only recently become public topics, the issues have been around in Anchorage longer than many realize.
"When I was principal at Wendler Middle School 15 years ago, I dealt with similar issues," Bellamy said. "And it's not going to go away."