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Pre-Obama Directive, NYC Public Schools Embraced Transgender Rights


Across the country this week, states and school districts are deciding whether to comply with a directive from the Obama administration stating that transgender students may not be treated differently from other students. That includes allowing transgender students access to restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity.


Now, the new guidance is just that. It's not legally binding, but states that don't comply risk losing billions in federal education money. Some, including Texas, have already refused. Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick told a press conference it would mean, quote, "the end of public education."


DAN PATRICK: This goes against the values of so many people. It has nothing to do with anyone being against a transgender child.

MONTAGNE: And North Carolina, the state at the center of the controversy over what's come to be known as bathroom bills, is also resisting. Governor Pat McCrory told NPR that he doesn't think President Obama has the authority to order schools to change policy.

PAT MCCRORY: It's not just a matter of civil rights. It's also a matter of privacy. And those two issues are coming into conflict.

KELLY: But some school districts are already are following policies similar to what the federal government is calling for, and they have been for years. One of them is New York City. To find out more, we called Jared Fox. He is the New York Department of Education's LGBT community liaison. And Mr. Fox, good morning.

JARED FOX: Good morning, Mary Louise. How are you today?

KELLY: I'm great. Thank you for joining us. Now can you start by briefly describing what your policy is with regard to transgender students?

FOX: Yeah. So in March of 2014, the New York City Department of Education created our first transgender student guidelines. It governs not only bathrooms and changing rooms, but also other important issues such as names and pronouns, student records and the student's right to privacy as well.

KELLY: Now does this comply, your policy? Does it comply with the new federal guidelines?

FOX: It has complied with the policy since March of 2014 and goes even steps further to also name other protections for transgender students.

KELLY: I'm curious - was there a particular incident that prompted you to put this into place two years ago?

FOX: No, nothing in particular that prompted that. It really was just about doing the right thing at that time.

KELLY: You say doing the right thing at that time. I am curious. You've see how controversial these new federal guidelines are playing out across the country. Was there a backlash when you put your policy into effect?

FOX: We created the policy and disseminated it to all of our school leaders and all over the central office and really saw no backlash from there. We have seen, you know, some schools do great things with it and some schools that just take it as that, as guidelines. But I think the important thing to realize is that guidelines also impact our policies as well.

KELLY: What do you mean by that?

FOX: So, you know, guidance is guidance. It's a group of suggestions. But, for example, if you misgender a transgender student on a day-to-day basis, that's considered harassment.

KELLY: Calling someone he when they prefer to be called she and vice versa.

FOX: Correct.

KELLY: What - have you gotten any concerns, complaints, questions from parents or students who are impacted by your policy?

FOX: From students who are transgender, it's really great for them to know what their rights are and what they should be treated like in schools. And for our students who may not be on board, it's really about - the keystone education. I mean, we are the department of education. So I think at the end of the day, what's really important for us is that we're taking students and their families and our communities on a journey. And I'm really excited now that the rest of the government and all across the country can join us in this conversation.

KELLY: Do you have any idea how many transgender students you have in the system, how many have been affected?

FOX: You know, it's really hard to say because we don't keep track of transgender students. And we know that many students are on a different point in their journey and may not be ready to invite people in yet.

KELLY: You mentioned that part of the process is educating students and others impacted by the policy. How does that work? What does it look like?

FOX: So one of the things that we do constantly is training our school leaders, our teachers. We have a position in New York City called the parent coordinator, which is one person at every school that's responsible for liaising with the families in that community. When I started in this position, because an LGBT liaison is a relatively new position for New York City, we - I trained 1,200 parent coordinators out of our 1,800.

So I've been on a journey to really educate our families and teachers and then, at the end of this month in accordance with the federal directive from the president, we'll start training our school leaders directly, which is great and much needed.

KELLY: I'm curious, Mr. Fox. Since you have two years of experience under your belt with this policy, what advice do you have for school districts across the country weighing what to do?

FOX: I think it's important for school districts taking this policy into account to think a lot about what needs to happen with the students - and every student is at a very different place in their transition - and to realize that you should really ask the students - what do you need at this moment? That's what we do a lot - is really asking our students what they need to be successful. And I think this policy is one step towards that.

KELLY: All right. Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us.

FOX: Thank you.

KELLY: That's Jared Fox. He is the New York Department of Education's LGBT community liaison. And he is one of many voices that we are bringing you on NPR on this question of civil rights protections for LGBT people. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.