Transgender students’ options for the use of bathrooms and locker rooms, dress codes and counseling are mapped out in a set of guidelines and policies created by the Hawaii Department of Education for the upcoming school year.

School Board members learned more about them Tuesday.

Several states have already enacted laws to prevent gender identity and sexual orientation discrimination in schools, but Hawaii is formulating its own policies.

The policies, partially inspired by those in California and New York, will offer transgender students alternative bathroom, uniform and locker room arrangements that correspond with their gender identity. Nurse’s bathrooms will also be an option for transgender students or non-transgender students who are uncomfortable changing in the same locker room.

At the Tuesday meeting, Deputy Superintendent Stephen Schatz presented Hawaii's first policy to accommodate transgender students.
At a Tuesday meeting, Deputy Superintendent Stephen Schatz, in the foreground, gave a presentation on policies to accommodate transgender students. Courtney Teague / Civil Beat

For overnight trips, transgender students can be housed in the same facilities as the gender they identify with, but can also ask to be housed alone.

The guidelines clarify that students will be allowed to wear any style of clothing typically associated with their gender identification.

Several scenarios are provided in the guidelines that walk employees through difficulties they may encounter. One warns teachers to be wary reading off names on standardized tests to avoid inadvertently outing a student.

“Our schools are very inclusive places, places of aloha, places that we can be proud of.” — Deputy Superintendent Stephen Schatz

Under the policies, unofficial records will display the student’s preferred name and gender, and students are to be addressed by the preferred pronoun. Official school documents will contain the same information as legal documents.

The involvement of a doctor or parent is not necessary for the student to begin socially transitioning at school, although at least one board member suggested that this policy should not apply to younger students.

The DOE also drafted an individualized, confidential support plan to make it easier for school staff to keep track of the students’ legal names, preferred names and pronouns, chosen locker room/bathroom facilities, “go-to adults” on campus and other arrangements.

If students feel threatened, the support plan designates an individualized signal so campus employees can intervene. 

Notes on the social dynamics between the student and family members, staff and other students will be kept on record as well. For students whose parents do not support or are unaware of their transition, for instance, notes are kept to prevent outing the student via electronic communication or records.

The transgender community is particularly subject to violence and discrimination — 78 percent of transgender people reported harassment from kindergarten through high school, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. Of those who were bullied in school, 51 percent reported attempting suicide, compared to 41 percent who were not bullied.

Transgender students are also more likely to miss school and have a lower grade-point average. When they leave school, they’re more likely to experience extreme poverty, Schatz said.

Incorporating New Feedback

During a Board of Education Student Committee meeting, board members lauded efforts to draft a policy that accommodates transgender students, but they said some adjustments were needed.

Key items that they said needed more work included transgender students in competitive sports, the bathroom policy and inclusion (or exclusion) of parents in the support plan.

DOE Deputy Superintendent Stephen Schatz prefaced his presentation by reminding the board that the guidelines are “fluid” and need feedback. He said his team would begin determining “official” documents (corresponding to legal documents) versus “unofficial” documents (corresponding to preferred name and gender) and removing gender references from records where possible.

Middle School PE Class. Editor NOTE: attemped to make kids unidentfiable. 13 april 2016.
Students participate in a middle school PE class on Oahu. A new policy on locker room facilities is part of the guidelines taking effect for the new school year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Schatz said he had visited 100 schools to talk about creating policies and guidelines, 41 of which were high schools. He said schools were already beginning to address these issues on their own in common sense ways by allowing students to dress and use bathrooms according to their gender identity.

“Our schools are very inclusive places, places of aloha, places that we can be proud of,” Schatz said.

Board members were concerned that parents would not always be included in conversations about socially transitioning in school, saying the DOE is legally bound to involve parents in school affairs unless the parent is determined to be unfit.

“If you’re gonna get a lawsuit, I think that’s where it will come from.” — Board member Hubert Minn, referring to rules for sports participation

Noting that legislation was recently passed to allow minors over the age of 13 to seek mental counseling without parental consent, a board member suggested the policies state more specifically at what age a student’s decision to transition can be kept confidential.

If parents weren’t supportive of their child’s transition, another board member recommended the school facilitate therapy.

Schatz said his team had yet to determine how transgender students could participate in gender-segregated competitive athletic teams, adding federal guidelines are flexible. He pointed to Oregon’s policy, which allows transgender students to participate in the sports team that aligns with their gender identity regardless of whether they’ve started hormonal transition.

“If you’re gonna get a lawsuit, I think that’s where it will come from,” said board member Hubert Minn.

Board Member Margaret Cox recalled boys sneaking into female bathrooms during her time as a middle school principal and recommended the DOE firm up its bathroom policy before questions pop up during the school year.

“Sometimes, kids are smarter than we are on how things work,” Cox said, implying that some non-transgender students might take advantage of the new rules.

Donalyn Dela Cruz, DOE director of communications, said the process of creating the guidelines began in June 2015. She said there’s no statistics about transgender students in Hawaii, but the DOE began looking into a districtwide policy after at least one principal asked how to accommodate transgender students in sports.

From there, she said the DOE started looking into a larger spectrum of issues that transgender students may face. LGBT and legal groups were consulted to make sure that civil rights for all students were respected, Dela Cruz said.

In the long term, Dela Cruz said school facilities like locker rooms may be built differently to accommodate students. For now, there’s not enough funding to retrofit or build new facilities, she said.

“We’ll take the feedback from today and see if any adjustments need to be made before the next school year,” she said.

The DOE reached out to University of Hawaii at Manoa LGBTQ+ Center Director Camaron Miyamoto for feedback. He said the DOE also worked with the Transgender Law Center to ensure the guidelines were consistent with federal Title IX requirements.

At the university, students can change the sex marker on their records and policies are being considered for students to be called by their preferred name, Miyamoto said. UH Manoa recently purchased gender-neutral signs for use at single-stall campus bathrooms — and he’s working to take the change system-wide.

“I think it’s essential to make sure we have not only these policies in place at higher education levels, but also at K-12 levels,” he said.

A Mother’s Perspective

Rebecca Copeland, an attorney on the board of LGBT advocacy group Equality Hawaii and parent of a transgender teen, said the Hawaii guidelines are more detailed than federal guidelines released last month.

She was impressed with how well they’re tailored to local schools and are considerate of non-transgender students who do not want to use the same facilities as transgender students.

Copeland advocated for a 2015 bill signed into law that allowed transgender individuals to change the sex on their birth certificate without a sex change operation. She also advocated for a bill this year, which is awaiting Gov. David Ige’s signature, that would prevent insurance companies from discriminating against transgender policyholders.

Transgender Native Hawaiian teacher Hina Wong-Kalu (left) and Jennea Purcell (right) at a protest at the Department of Education where they petitioned the Board of Education for greater protections for transgender students.
Transgender Native Hawaiian teacher Hina Wong-Kalu, left, and Jennea Purcell recently called on the state Department of Education to provide greater protections for transgender students. Todd Simmons/Civil Beat

Coupled with those recent legislative efforts to protect transgender citizens, Copeland said the guidelines put Hawaii ahead of the curve for protecting the LGBT community from discrimination. She described her son’s experience at school as “completely accommodating,” saying his school has provided him alternative changing facilities and calls him by the name and pronoun he identifies with.

The Native Hawaiian understanding and acceptance of transgender individuals, or mahu, contributes to “a more understanding cultural atmosphere,” Copeland said.

Although her son does not attend a DOE school, Copeland said she would feel much more comfortable sending him to a public school with such policies in place.

Last year, a Kahuku High School transgender female claimed she was forbidden from walking at graduation with the style of gown reserved for women. Problems like that would be prevented if all DOE staff members heed these policies, Copeland said.

Mandatory, system-wide training for all employees must be conducted by knowledgeable individuals and repeated every couple of years to be effective, she said.

“When you look at (the guidelines) as a whole picture, I think it’s amazing. They’re doing a lot.” — Rebecca Copeland, mother of transgender teen

Copeland still has some concerns about the guidelines.

One of her worries is that the gender on a school’s official records will still reflect legal records. Although Hawaii now allows birth certificate sex markers to be changed without surgery or a court order, it can still be difficult for transgender youth (especially without supportive parents) to alter their birth certificate. A physician’s affidavit and state fee is necessary to complete the paperwork.

If the gender marker on a student’s school records doesn’t match up with future paperwork, Copeland said a lot of problems could arise. Students interested in college could also hit roadblocks in their application process.

Another worry of Copeland’s is that the guidelines aim to recognize the student’s “sincerely held” gender identity. She says the phrase may open the gate for DOE employees to question students about how “sincere” their gender identity is.

The declaration of a student’s gender identity should have nothing to do with the opinions of an administrator, teacher or counselor, she said.

But Copeland is optimistic about the impact the guidelines will have.

“I’m proud of the DOE for the guidelines that they’ve created,” Copeland said. “They’re not perfect, I have a couple concerns … but when you look at (the guidelines) as a whole picture, I think it’s amazing. They’re doing a lot.”

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