Quantcast
Home » News

What’s it like to be a transgender student in Utah? Depends on where you live

First Published      Last Updated Jun 20 2016 08:25 am


State/federal conflict over a restroom directive leaves Utah schools with a case-by-case challenge — and families vulnerable to unsafe educational environments.

School security cameras could not reveal what Anna Turkel's kindergartner wouldn't discuss.

Two years later, Turkel continues to wonder what happened when her son left the playground with the classmate who'd previously held his hand to a blisteringly hot slide and tried to look up his skirt in the restroom.

Was her child called names? Sexually assaulted? Or did nothing happen at all?

Kaiden refused to tell her. Those off-camera moments are why, in large part, Kaiden's education in the Weber School District lasted less than three months.

"It was, every day, 'What is it gonna be now?' If he can't be safe at school, he can't go to school," Turkel said. "He has a right to the same quality education as everyone else. And he's not getting it."




Turkel quit her job at a security alarm company to home-school Kaiden, now a 7-year-old baseball player and aspiring fashion designer who reports he will grow up to be a girl.

Whether Utah students like Kaiden find resources and support at their schools depends largely on where they live. Utah's school board has long left it to individual districts and schools to design their own protocols for accommodating transgender students. That didn't change after the Obama administration in May directed all schools receiving federal funds to allow transgender students to use the restrooms they prefer.

Some Utah school districts say they've long complied with that recommendation, but others are ignoring the president's memo as they keep an eye on a multi-state lawsuit Utah has joined to battle the directive.

And should the lawsuit fail, one Utah lawmaker is drafting a proposal to circumvent the federal rule.

Those pushing back against the order say it's about federal overreach, not school restrooms. But parents and advocates say the fight — and the continuing lack of direction for schools — puts politics before children.

'All kids are different' • As a toddler, Kaiden opted to layer shimmery dresses over his shorts.

Worried about bullying, "We tried so hard to put him in his little blue box," Turkel recalls. She agreed for Kaiden, the oldest of three sons, to be identified only by his first name. His last name is different than hers.

But Kaiden insisted on My Little Pony and pink sequined sandals, so Turkel eventually stopped pushing.

Kaiden likes to be called "he" for now, and doesn't get too wrapped up in being called a girl or boy.

Most importantly, he said, "I'm a Kaiden."

In fall 2014, Roosevelt Elementary in Washington Terrace did not permit him to use the girls' restroom, where he felt safe.

Male classmates often kicked him out of line for the boys' room, his mom said. But one day, they followed him in and ordered that he remove his clothes so they could see if he was a girl or a boy.

Kaiden managed to run away. But fear stuck with him. He began vomiting on schoolday mornings and came home hungry in the afternoon — skipping lunch, he told Turkel, so he would not need to brave the restroom.

School administrators ultimately made a single-use restroom available and agreed that Kaiden could show a thumbs-down to his teacher if he felt unsafe.

But, Turkel said, Principal Justin Skeen told her that Kaiden would be forbidden from wearing a glittery Halloween costume mimicking Ariel's deep-sea getup from "The Little Mermaid."

She said Skeen also declined to investigate the bullying as a violation of the federal law against sex and gender discrimination, or suspend Kaiden's main tormentor.

Skeen said he could not recall any such conversations, and that privacy law prevents him from talking about individual students. Roosevelt never has barred students from dressing in accordance with their gender identity, he said.

"We're not out to discriminate against anybody," Skeen said. "We need to create an environment that all kids can be successful in."

But the school has no explicit policy on accommodating transgender students, Skeen said. "All kids are different. It's not a cookie-cutter mold."

Administrators respond quickly and thoroughly to reports of bullying and sexual harassment, Skeen said, by talking to students, parents and teachers before determining appropriate discipline.

They also meet with students and their families on a case-by-case basis to negotiate accommodations, which can include appointments with school counselors and a therapist employed by the district, said Weber district spokesman Nate Taggart. The district trains employees on issues facing LGBT students, Taggart said, as well as broader diversity and acceptance lessons for students.

Turkel said she was not aware of such programs at Roosevelt two years ago.

The district does require transgender students to use the restroom corresponding to their birth sex, or an alternative single-use option, Taggart said, and is waiting on the outcome of the multistate lawsuit before making any changes.

"We'll have to see what the court mandates," Taggart said.

'We've provided a safe place for kids' • In Park City, transgender student Lily kept quiet for two years after closely identifying with a transgender girl's story in a magazine, anticipating ridicule.

But she wanted to be herself. So when she was a seventh-grader known as Aedan, Lily announced in a class spoken-word performance that she would no longer be referred to as a boy.

Girls rushed to hug her afterward. The boy she had thought a potential bully asked her permission to nominate her for the school-wide poetry slam.

In the final performance, she heard a gasp after the last line of her poem, where she came out as a transgender person.

But "I barely noticed it. I was too busy sweating and trying not to throw up." She earned a standing ovation.

She's sometimes harassed by classmates who ask what's under her jeans, she said. But her friend group has changed to include "more accepting people," including those in her post-hard-core band, Unmarked Eclipse.

At the beginning of eighth grade in the fall, Treasure Mountain Junior High administrators met with Lily and her mom, Darcy. They pointed out gender-neutral restroom facilities, but also urged the bass player and gay-straight-alliance co-founder to use the girls' restroom.

"I went in all prepared to be breathing fire," said Darcy, but school leaders were "extremely accommodating, extremely accepting." She and her daughter asked to have only their first names appear in this story.

The principal's office issued a new school ID for her Lily without any prodding. The bus driver stopped Lily on her way into the bus one day to ask how she spelled her name.

District administrators "listen to the kids," said Park City High School Principal Bob O'Connor, whose school included gender-neutral restroom facilities in a new addition last year.

"I'd like to believe that our student body and school community have taken pride in the fact that we've provided a safe place for kids," he said.

'There are little kids behind this' • Utah Rep. Paul Ray, a Clinton Republican, is drafting a bill to allow school districts to sidestep the federal guidance.

Rejecting the initiative could threaten a school's federal dollars, but Ray believes that outcome is unlikely. The U.S. Department of Education never has stripped a school's funding for failing to address sex-based harassment and discrimination.

"By telling a boy he has to go to the boys' bathroom and a girl she has to go to the girls' bathroom," Ray said, "you're protecting the kids that are going to the proper gender bathrooms."

He has no plans, however, to revive a failed 2014 proposal that aimed to dictate which restrooms Utah students may enter.

North Carolina passed a similar law in March that mandates transgender people access only the public or school bathroom that matches their birth sex.

The U.S. Justice Department has moved to block the law, and the federal education department followed with its May directive.

That instruction, Utah's Republican Gov. Gary Herbert said at the time, is "one of the most egregious examples of federal overreach I have ever witnessed."

As of Friday, Herbert's office had received 350 letters denouncing the directive, said spokesman Jon Cox, and 600 in favor of it.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said in a statement that he is committed to children's well-being, but joined the suit with more than a dozen other states because he feels the "mandate is disconnected from the needs of Utah" and ignores school districts' authority to craft their own "careful and collaborative" approach.

"Localized oversight by school administrators is not always perfect," Reyes said, "but it is the best process for individualized needs to be met on a case-by-case basis."

Reyes said he has met with several families with transgender children, but it hasn't changed his mind. Local decision-making "empowers districts to better protect transgender youth," he said.

In response to the federal directive last month, three members of Utah County's Alpine School District board sent a letter to state leaders, saying that allowing transgender students to use the restroom, locker rooms and showers with students of the same gender identity is morally reprehensible.

Public education leaders won't wade into the debate.

"The state board is not providing a directive on this topic," interim state Superintendent Sydnee Dickson wrote in a letter to school districts. "We anticipate you will continue accommodating the needs of individual students according to your local policies and procedures."

Schools, Dickson wrote, should respond to unique situations "with sensitivity and timeliness" and put student safety first.

But more specific instructions are needed, said Candice Metzler, a University of Utah researcher and social worker who runs group counseling sessions for transgender teens as director of Transgender Education Advocates.

"As complex an issue as it is, it's ridiculous we would think we don't need guidance," Metzler said. "It seems like a political hot potato. People are afraid to touch it."

Though Lily has the support of her family and school, she said she also wishes Utah's top elected officials backed the state's transgender young people.

Herbert's vow to fight the directive "kind of pisses me off," Lily said. "It annoyed me because I think everyone should have a right to go to the bathroom."

Anna Turkel, Kaiden's mom, agreed. "I feel like he's using our children as stepping stones to get re-elected," she said.

"If people realized there are little kids behind this, that might change their minds."

aknox@sltrib.com

Twitter: @anniebknox

 

COMMENTS
VIEW/POST COMMENT      ()