October 14, 2014 at 6:46 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Education Dept. reaches settlement in trans student harassment case
trans, transgender flag, gay news, Washington Blade

The Department of Education reached a settlement with a California school district over harassment of a transgender student. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key).

A California school district will be required to ensure all students are protected from discrimination or harassment on the basis of their gender identity as a result of a voluntary agreement reached with the Department of Education.

The Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Education announced Tuesday it entered into the agreement with California’s Downey Unified School District as a result of a complaint over the harassment and discriminatory treatment of a transgender student.

“Our federal civil rights laws protect all students from sex-based discrimination and harassment,” said Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights. “I commend the Downey Unified School District for entering into this agreement to ensure that each of its students, including transgender students and students who do not conform to stereotyped notions of masculinity or femininity, can learn in a safe, educational environment.”

According to a letter to the district dated Oct. 14, the student, a transgender girl whose name isn’t disclosed, faced discrimination from her elementary school and fellow students on the basis of her gender identity while attending fifth grade, and by her peers in middle school. The Department of Education received the complaint in November 2011.

Staff at her elementary school allegedly confiscated the student’s make-up — even though other girls in her class were permitted to wear make-up — and made the student write an apology letter for making male students uncomfortable by putting on make-up. The school also discouraged the student from discussing her gender identity and wasn’t allowed in group counseling sessions with other students based, at least in part, on concern the student might discuss her gender identity.

The student fared no better with her fifth grade peers, who allegedly harassed her by calling her “gay” in a manner intended to be an insult as well as “fag,” “bitch” and “whore.” To avoid this harassment, the school directed the student to sit in the back of the bus, but the harassment continued. The school also allegedly recommended the student transfer to another district where no one would know she was a transgender girl.

When the student reached middle school, the staff were said to be more receptive, agreeing to refer to her using female pronouns. However, harassment from her fellow students continued at middle school after she was outed as transgender by peers who attended elementary school with her.

According to the Department of Education, the district requested to resolve this complaint through a voluntary agreement prior to the conclusion of the investigation. As a result of the agreement, Downey Unified School District must institute new policy to ensure equal access and safety to students regardless of gender identity. Here’s the provisions to the agreement as provided by the Department of Education:

· Engage a consultant with expertise on child and adolescent gender identity, including experience with discrimination against gender nonconforming and transgender students, to support and assist the District with implementing the provisions of the agreement;

· Work with its consultant to ensure a school climate free of harassment by incorporating age-appropriate information for students on gender identity, gender-based discrimination and harassment;

· Continue to treat the student the same as other female students in all respects in the education programs and activities offered by the District, including access to sex-designated facilities for female students;

· Notify the student and the complainant that they may request that the District develop a Student Success Plan to ensure the student has equal access and opportunity to participate in all programs and activities, and is otherwise protected from gender-based discrimination at school;

· Ensure that the student is not disciplined for acting or appearing in a manner that does not conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity;

· Remove all discipline imposed on the student during the 2011˗12 school year from the student’s records;

· Review District policies, procedures and regulations applicable to student participation in all programs and activities offered by the District and make necessary revisions to ensure that all students, including students who do not conform to sex stereotypes, are provided an equal opportunity to participate in all such programs and activities in a manner that does not discriminate based on sex, gender identity or gender expression;

· Develop an implementation guide for administrators, faculty and staff that addresses how the District’s gender-based discrimination policies apply to transgender and gender nonconforming students;

· Conduct mandatory training on issues related to gender nonconformance and gender-based harassment for District and school-site administrators who have the responsibility of investigating or supervising the investigation of gender-based harassment complaints and implementing other anti-discrimination policies and procedures regarding transgender and gender nonconforming students; and

· Conduct annual school climate assessments, including a student and parent survey, to evaluate the effectiveness of the District’s bullying and harassment prevention efforts.

John Garcia, superintendent for Downey Unified School District, said many of these provisions were already underway before the agreement was reached.

“Our goal is always to make sure all of our students are safe and supported at all time,” Garcia said. “Working through this process without admitting any violation of any federal laws or without admitting any ill, we absolutely wanted to make sure we worked with them to resolve this complaint, and we feel that we have a reached a very solid resolution.”

According to the district’s website, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression are among the protected classes in the school’s non-discrimination policy.

Garcia said he sees no obstacles in complying with the agreement set by the Department of Education.

“We feel the we can absolutely implement the things that are articulated in the resolution,” Garcia said. “Many of these things, quite frankly, we’re already doing…We’re going to continue to do things that we’ve done, and there a couple of specifics related to the resolution that we will enact as well, and we know that that will be helpful in making sure that our students are safe and supported at all times.”

According to the Department of Education, the Obama administration is able to reach this settlement with the district because it receives federal funds through interpretation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits schools from discriminating on the basis of gender, to apply to transgender students.

Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, said she’s pleased to know Downey Unified School District will take concrete steps to address the previous incident and prevent further discrimination.

We hope that this agreement will send a message to all districts, encouraging them to proactively address the needs of their transgender students,” Byard said.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

3 Comments
  • Katherine Koski OK, I'm Puzzled. … I'm very happy the District reached an agreement with DOE, but they obviously violated discrimination statutes that must be complied with by schools receiving State and Federal funds in California. And it's disturbing how the District continued to allow discrimination after seemingly clear complaints. Plus there's this statement by the Superintendent to weasel out of any admission of wrong doing. – “Working through this process without admitting any violation of any federal laws or without admitting any ill, we absolutely wanted to make sure we worked with them to resolve this complaint, and we feel that we have a reached a very solid resolution.” – I almost wish this had become an actual discrimination case in Federal Court so it would have been clear "Nationally" that LGBT student discrimination is not acceptable in any school, and any State under law. Once again I'm not a good activist, but this is something that pisses me off. Yes, until I learned how to hide I was bullied in school.

  • The required compliance to receive the funds is the only reason they reached an agreement. I feel if it weren't for the current administration in D.C., they would have continued to let the discrimination/harrassment rage on. They know they're wrong and I think it would have gone national, if not for the agreement itself that removed the proper criminal persecution it deserved.

  • Robyn Ann I agree. I looks to me that once they found they were going to lose funding and have to pay for both their actions and non actions was when they decided to change their tune.

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