Voices from the Field

Voices from the Field is a place for administrators, teachers, school support staff, community, and family members to learn what experts -- researchers, practitioners, family -- from across the country think by reading a short post that includes the latest promising practices on a range of school climate topics, along with references and related resources.

Why is gender identity important to include on school climate surveys?

District and school leaders know the importance of school climate surveys in creating safe, healthy, and supportive school environments for all students. Assessing climate allows schools to identify strengths and needs among students and staff, guides program planning, and helps ensure schools and their community partners have the right programming in place to meet students’ needs.

“High quality school climate data allow you to understand the perceptions of the students, staff, and parents in your school or district; monitor progress; make data-driven decisions; involve stakeholders; and adapt to shifting needs.”
National Center on Safe, Supportive Learning Environments

Rather than being treated as a separate issue, equity should be an essential component to all aspects of school climate work (Ross, 2013). To help meet the needs of all students, schools and districts must assess the attitudes, perceptions, and experiences of students from all demographics—including members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

LGBTQIA+ students are at high risk for social, academic, and disciplinary issues at school, and nonbinary/transgender kids are the most vulnerable. To understand and address the challenges unique to the nonbinary/transgender community, schools need to assess first these students’ experiences with school climate.

Why is it important to assess school climate among LGBTQIA+ students?

LGBTQI+ students have different school experiences from their heterosexual and cisgender peers. Their negative educational and social outcomes are even more pronounced than those of other historically marginalized populations, including students of color.

According to Sadowski (2016–17) and Snapp et al. (2015), LGBTQIA+ students are at increased risk of:

  • violence and bullying,
  • feelings of isolation and mental health issues, and
  • a host of social challenges including homelessness.

They also have poorer education outcomes, such as:

  • lower GPA,
  • higher rates of truancy and exclusionary discipline practices, and
  • a decreased chance of obtaining postsecondary education.

All of these things can contribute to lifelong discrepancies in the future success of sex/gender diverse people compared with their peers.

Schools can be the primary source of social life among LGBTQIA+ youth and a place where they can find resources and support. Schools can also be the place where they are subjected oppression and adversity.

Many school climate surveys don’t ask about gender or sexual identity, so the needs and experiences of LGBTQIA+ aren’t fully  understood. Amber Reid, MSW, administrative services officer at the Nevada Department of Education explained, “As is often the case with historically marginalized or oppressed populations, a lack of research regarding the characteristics, outcomes, and needs of that population often contributes to a lack of awareness regarding the frequency, prevalence, or degree of those characteristics and outcomes.”

Because nonbinary and transgender youth experience higher rates of negative consequences than their cisgender LGBTQIA+ peers, it’s critical to capture their experiences with and impressions of school climate. This information helps us to truly understand their unique challenges and to plan for and provide appropriate supports and services. 

What is the school climate like for transgender/nonbinary students?

Sex- and gender-diverse students face substantial obstacles in school, often because of structural and institutional failures at the school and district levels (Biegel & Kuehl, 2010; Leonardi & Staley, 2015; Snapp et al., 2015). School environments can be “astonishingly hostile” (Patterson, 2013) to young people who identify as LGBTQIA+. 

In the past 20 years, there has been major social progress in affirming of the rights of sex/gender diverse adults. In general, though, educational systems have been much slower and more inconsistent in making similar advancements (Sadowski, 2016–17).

Although many LGBQIA+ youth face difficult school environments, transgender and nonbinary students’ experiences with school climate are worse than that of their cisgender, queer peers.

The GLSEN research brief Improving School Climate for Transgender and Nonbinary Youth (GLSEN Research Institute, 2021, p. 1) reported that compared with their cisgender, queer peers, transgender/nonbinary students: 

  • Are more likely to say they felt unsafe based on their gender
  • Report lower rates of feeling like they belong
  • Suffer higher levels of victimization
  • Have higher rates of missing schools 
  • Experience higher rates of discriminatory school policies including:
    • Being required to use bathroom and locker room of gender assigned at birth
    • Prevented from using chosen name and pronouns
    • Not allowed to wear clothing aligned with their identified gender 

What does Title IX say about transgender/nonbinary students?

Creating safe, supportive school environments for nonbinary/transgender students is not just the right thing to do—it’s a requirement under Title IX of the Education Requirements of 1972. In 2016, the U.S Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division and U.S Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights released a “Dear Colleague” letter stating: “Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX) and its implementing regulations prohibit sex discrimination in educational programs and activities operated by recipients of Federal financial assistance. This prohibition encompasses discrimination based on a student’s gender identity, including discrimination based on a student’s transgender status.”

The letter goes on to outline the following:

  • “Schools have a responsibility to provide a safe and nondiscriminatory environment for all students, including transgender students.”
  • “If sex-based harassment creates a hostile environment, the school must take prompt and effective steps to end the harassment, prevent its recurrence, and, as appropriate, remedy its effects.”
  • “Under Title IX, a school must treat students consistent with their gender identity even if their education records or identification documents indicate a different sex.”
  • “Title IX’s implementing regulations permit a school to provide sex-segregated restrooms, locker rooms, shower facilities, housing, and athletic teams, as well as single-sex classes under certain circumstances. When a school provides sex-segregated activities and facilities, transgender students must be allowed to participate in such activities and access such facilities consistent with their gender identity.”
  • “The Departments may find a Title IX violation when a school limits students’ educational rights or opportunities by failing to take reasonable steps to protect students’ privacy related to their transgender status, including their birth name or sex assigned at birth.”

How can we improve school climate for transgender/nonbinary students?

Districts and schools can take several steps to improve school climate for transgender/nonbinary students. Student affinity clubs, supportive school personnel and administrators, and inclusive school policies can all make transgender/nonbinary students feel included and supported.

Schools need to understand the unique experiences and needs of their transgender/nonbinary students. The first step in this understanding is to assess their experiences and impressions of school climate to help provide appropriate services and programming. The state of Nevada is doing just that.

What steps is Nevada taking to improve school climate for transgender/nonbinary students?

In 2017, the Nevada Legislature Senate Bill 225 passed. It required the Nevada Department of Education (NDE) to update the Model Policy on Safe and Respectful Learning Environments to include "requirements and methods for addressing the rights and needs of persons with diverse gender identities or expressions."   

Amber Reid, MSW, administrative services officer at NDE, explains how this bill affected school climate surveys in Nevada: “Nevada received a technical assistance grant from the Council of State Governments – Justice Center, which made recommendations to the Interim Legislative Committee on Education (LCE). Based on those recommendations, LCE directed NDE to add an additional gender item to the state school climate survey in August 2018.”

As a result, Reid said, “NDE staff completed a robust literature review to determine what elements and components the research has demonstrated to be most impactful in supporting sex/gender diverse students; this literature review provided an initial outline for discussions with stakeholders.”

When developing the regulation language, NDE worked with a large and diverse set of stakeholders, including students, family members and caregivers, educators, and relevant community members. 

The draft language was approved by the Legislative Commission on October 25, 2018, and codified within the Model Policy on Safe and Respectful Learning Environments. NDE added the question about gender identity on their Nevada School Climate Survey (NV-SCSEL) for Grades 9 through 12 beginning with the 2018–19 school year. The NV-SCSEL measures students’ perceptions of their school across four school climate constructs: cultural and linguistic competence, relationships, physical safety, and emotional safety. It also measures students’ perceptions of themselves on a social-emotional competency construct. Also in 2019, Nevada Senate Bill 89, known as the School Safety Omnibus bill, added school climate to the requirements for annual school improvement plans.

According to Reid, around 3.5% of students who responded to the gender identity item self-identified as sex/gender diverse (transgender or nonbinary) during the fall 2021 survey administration. Nearly 750 students identified as sex/gender diverse, out of 21,000 high school students who responded to the gender item on the survey. (While the NV-SCSEL includes a gender item, the state’s two largest school districts administer their own school climate surveys, neither of which includes a gender item.) Results for students who self-identified as sex/gender-diverse on the NV-SCSEL reported statistically significantly less favorable perceptions of their school’s climate on all constructs the survey measures.

When NDE administered NV-SCSEL in the spring of 2021, some parents noticed and asked about the gender identity question. NDE held school district presentations with parents to hear their concerns, respond their questions, and explain why the question was added. 

“We helped explain how the gender identity question can help schools and the state to look at analyses of climate data and look for differences on how students are experiencing schooling,” Reid explained.   

The use of school climate data is now required by state law (see Nevada Revised Statutes 385A.650) to be included in the school performance plans that schools must submit each year to the state. These data help schools to consider how sex/gender-diverse students may be experiencing their school’s climate differently than their non–sex/gender-diverse peers and is an additional metric that schools can plan around as they work to improve the performance of all students by creating an inclusive learning environment.

Conclusion

To provide students with every opportunity to grow and thrive, it’s crucial that we provide positive school climates in which all students feel safe, supported, and comfortable being themselves. To understand the supports and services that will help nonbinary/transgender achieve their highest potential, the first step schools should take is assessing their perceptions of school climate by including a gender identity question on school climate surveys.

Acknowledgments

This blog was developed by Kellie Anderson, with valuable input from Amber Reid and Sara Wolforth.

 

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