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Every morning, a ritual takes place at the Kalaheo High School registrar’s office on the windward side of Oahu. It’s a small but vital action, since it could make the difference between peace of mind and debilitating anxiety for one 16-year-old junior.
The school registrar pulls out the student roster, manually whites-out the legal name of the student and writes in his preferred name. This is performed daily to prevent a potential substitute teacher from inadvertently calling out the student’s legal name during roll call.
“All my classmates know me as Johnathan,” says Johnathan Goodwin, who transitioned from female to male in intermediate school. “If (a sub) called out (my birth-given name), which has happened, it’s a very anxiety-inducing situation.”
That step is just one way in which Kalaheo High, a public school in Kailua that has a large military student population, signals its willingness to be inclusive of all its students — including its most vulnerable who identify as LGBT.
A recent study on transgender youth released by the Hawaii Department of Health unearthed sobering statistics about the students in this community, including a higher prevalence of bullying, depression, dropping out of school and attempts at suicide than their peers overall.
The report lands two years after the state Department of Education adopted new guidelines around protections for transgender students — policies which transgender advocates say are robust but remain spottily applied.
“It was very impactful — we thought we won that day (in 2016 when the guidelines were adopted),” said Cathy Kapua, transgender service coordinator at Hawaii Health & Harm Reduction Center. “But there was little follow-up.”
Today, protections for transgender students in Hawaii’s public schools are uneven, according to advocates in this area, leaving it up to each school leader to set the tone.
“There’s a lot of things schools can do to make students more comfortable, but it’s totally principal-dependent,” said Renee Rumler, clinical director at The Lavender Center & Clinic, a nonprofit health care clinic in Honolulu that focuses on LGBT issues.
One of the main areas that still need attention, according to some advocates, is anti-bias training for staff that goes deeper than just a recitation of the DOE guidelines. This includes familiarity with what constitutes bullying and harassment against this community, best practices and guidance on how to handle student confidentiality concerns when they don’t have the support of their parents.
The Hawaii DOE’s Civil Rights Compliance Branch has held training sessions with administrators across the state that covers behaviors and outcomes transgender youth are most at risk for; what state and federal laws say; and requirements under Hawaii’s own guidelines, according to DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani. Training is also available to individual schools upon request, she said in an email.
“Schools can always call CRCB for guidance on specific situations or for additional training,” she added.
Hawaii has the highest rate of transgender prevalence in the United States, according to the Williams Institute, which focuses on sexual identity and gender identity issues at UCLA’s law school. A little more than 3 percent of public high school students — about 1,260 — identify as transgender, with Native Hawaiian, Filipino and Caucasian students each making up a quarter of the transgender student population here.
The Aloha State has taken considerable strides in giving attention to the issue of non-gender conformity, including with the 2016 DOE student guidelines. This past session, the Hawaii Legislature passed a state corollary to Title IX, the law banning discrimination on basis of sex, sexual orientation or gender identity in any educational program that receives federal funding.
Some say underscoring Hawaii’s commitment to these protections is needed in light of proposed rollbacks considered by the Trump administration. Those include rescinding Obama-era guidance allowing transgender students to use bathrooms that align with their gender identity; banning transgender youth from serving in the military; and, most recently, proposing to define gender as immutable and “fixed” at birth.
Hawaii is a leader when it comes to offering protections for LGBT people, which is why the proposals being floated at the federal level “sow confusion about which rules apply and where and whether or not trans and other gender and sexual minorities deserve protection at all,” said Dean Hamer, an independent filmmaker and LGBT advocate.
“This is why it’s imperative that the Hawaii guidelines be firmly articulated and implemented throughout the DOE system,” he added.
Goodwin, born and raised on Oahu to parents originally from New Zealand and Canada, is like any other teenager, with hopes, fears and dreams for the future. He also possesses an inordinate amount of self-awareness for his young age, perhaps owing to his deeply personal experience with self-identity growing up.
Four days a week after school, Goodwin travels via bus for an hour each way to work as a receptionist at The Lavender Center. He is also its “TransTeen Ambassador,” a role where he helps educate people of all career fields and backgrounds about the community by sharing his experience as a transgender teen to attorneys at Kapolei Judiciary Complex and active and former military personnel at Tripler Army Medical Center.
The 16-year-old was born as a female but identifies as male, and has been taking hormone replacement therapy for the past two years to advance the physical transition.
“My school has been absolutely wonderful in my transition. It’s been the most supportive school,” he said of Kalaheo High.
But based on his conversations with other transgender students around Hawaii, the same can’t be said of many other schools.
A common problem is the issue of restrooms, he said. While the DOE’s 2016 guidelines explicitly permit a preferred use of restrooms by transgender teens, Goodwin has heard of transgender males and transgender females getting bullied or harassed when trying to use their preferred bathroom of choice.
“It’s pretty common for LGBT youth or especially for transgender youth to end up getting UTIs just from not being able to use the restroom at school,” he said. “It’s really common. It’s horribly common.”
Another issue is the practice by some school Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, or ROTC programs, to impose “gendered uniforms” — that is different uniforms for boys and girls, with reprimands issued to students who don’t conform to the clothing which matches their birth gender.
The accommodation for students’ preferred names remains one of the most central concerns for transgender teens — and among the easiest for schools to address, he said.
“A common misconception is that schools will argue, ‘we can’t use a preferred name, we can’t put it on your ID card, because it’s not your legal name.’ Legally, schools can put your preferred name down as long as it stays within the school system and doesn’t leave,” he noted.
This could mean something as straightforward as assuring graduating seniors their preferred names will be read aloud when they “walk” across stage — without them having to undergo the anxiety of reminding administrators ahead of time.
“It’s such a milestone to go through graduation, but to go up and have your wrong name called out – it’s pretty devastating,” Goodwin said.
Currently, Hawaii’s public schools lack the ability to denote a student’s preferred name in the statewide record-keeping software program known as “Infinite Campus.” McKinley High Registrar and vice president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association Osa Tui raised the point at a recent Board of Education meeting. Board member Pat Bergin, a former DOE teacher and administrator, nodded and conceded the process of updating the system is “overwhelming.”
Other schools like Farrington High — distinguished in the community for graduating Janet Mock, a well-known author, speaker and transgender advocate — have been ahead of the curve when it comes to acknowledging transgender youths.
The Kalihi high school has installed a unisex bathroom for at least the past five years, and despite the divided colors of graduation gowns for seniors (boys wear maroon and girls wear white), the school doesn’t raise a stink if a teen expresses a certain preference.
“If a transgender youth — from boy to girl — wants to use a white gown, we don’t make a big deal out of it,” said Farrington principal Al Carganilla.
Rumler, the clinical director at The Lavender Center, recalls the approval of the 2016 DOE guidelines. It’s clear in her mind because the clinic was asked to provide training to central administrative staff in the Hawaii education department on LGBT issues.
Following the presentation, she expected there to be further engagement from the DOE.
“(After the presentation), they said ‘great, we’ll contact you with a follow up.’” Rumler paused. “Crickets. I never heard back from them.”
In the three years since the guidelines were handed down, the situation around LGBT bullying has remained at status quo, she said.
“I’m not sure if (a lack of adequate training) has made anything worse, but it has not made anything better,” she said. “Our hope (with such training) was that the subtle ways of bullying — the bullying outside the school — would then have an effective way to be addressed.”
She noted that the suicide attempt rate among transgender individuals alone warrants much more proactive measures: nationally, 1 in 2 transgender or gender non-conforming people will attempt suicide, compared with 4.6 percent of the overall U.S. population, according to the Williams Institute.
The need for greater training was recently articulated in testimony to the BOE ahead of its Sept. 6 meeting by Robert Bidwell, a pediatrician and adolescent medicine physician in Hawaii.
During more than three decades of clinical practice in Hawaii, he wrote, he’s observed that kids facing gender identity and gender expression issues “are among the most likely to experience discrimination, bullying and harassment in our schools.”
Bidwell added that a statement from a 1992 report to the Legislature by the Hawaii Gay and Lesbian Teen Task Force indicating Hawaii’s schools are “dangerous places for youths” who are LGBT, with teachers ignoring the behavior or even participating in it, is “as true today as it was 26 years ago.”
As the state education department tackles bullying by focusing on revisions of student misconduct guidelines, advocates say more needs to be done on a statewide level.
“Any prevention you do has huge payoffs in reducing trauma, reducing negative impact on individual students,” Rumler said. “We know that education and awareness are part of that reducing of fear, that fear of ‘the other.'”
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