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Gender transitions at school spur debate over when, or if, parents are told

The Jara family gathered for a Pride festival in Orlando in October 2021. From left, father Dennis; son, Jaiden, now 16; mom Jaime; and son Jaxson, now 14. The youngest child, daughter Dempsey, now 10, is standing in front of them. (Family photo)
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Alexzander Baetsen came out at school to an English teacher. The revelation was made in a short letter on a piece of lined notebook paper, handed to the teacher as the eighth-grader left class one day. The teen explained that while they were assigned female at birth, they identified as transgender and gender fluid.

Baetsen remembers the teacher’s reaction: “Just come to me at the beginning of class and let me know what name and pronouns you want to go by for that day.” It was better than Baetsen expected — not only acceptance but someone who was able to “wrap their head around my situation.”

Still, it was six more months before the teenager told their parents. “You fear the worst,” said Baetsen, now 20.

Surprising many families nationally, public schools often don’t inform parents when students socially transition. They see confidentiality as a priority — operating under gender-identity guidelines that put student privacy and safety above family consent or knowledge.

School leaders say there are good reasons for the approach — mainly, to avoid outing kids who could be in harm’s way at home or aren’t ready to tell their parents. They worry about family rejection and students’ mental health. Transgender students are at a greater risk of suicide and substance use, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They are twice as likely to experience depressive symptoms. They, along with other LGBTQ youths, constitute a larger share of the foster-care population and are at higher risk for homelessness.

At least 18 states, along with D.C. and Puerto Rico, have issued school guidance in some form focused on inclusion and treatment of transgender and gender nonconforming students, said Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, executive director of GLSEN, which advocates for LGBTQ issues in schools. “Not all state guidance is as strong as it should be,” she said.

But where stronger rules are in place, school leaders have come under increasing fire for their perceived secrecy. Critics argue they have no business cutting families out of a critical part of children’s lives. The practice has prompted lawsuits in Massachusetts, Florida, Wisconsin, Kansas, Virginia and Maryland. Many of the legal actions point to an especially controversial practice: requesting teachers use new trans names in class but revert to the original “dead” names when talking with parents.

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“These policies mandate automatic affirmation for children of any age, without confirming that parents are aware,” Tyson Langhofer, senior counsel at the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a conservative Christian legal nonprofit that has filed suit in a string of cases. In many places, schools won’t tell parents unless students say it’s okay, he pointed out. “These policies are starting with the assumption that the parents are the problem,” he said.

Yet schools see what happens as more of a process — supporting students while they ready themselves to come out to their families, said Asaf Orr, senior staff attorney at the National Center for Lesbian Rights and director of its Transgender Youth Project. Research shows the single-largest factor in the well-being and health of transgender students is the level of support or rejection from their families, he said.

“This is the high-wire act of gender-inclusive practices,” Orr said.

‘I was the last to find out’

Experts say the number of gender-questioning youths is on the rise, partly because there is far less social stigma. Nearly 16 percent of people slightly older than today’s teenagers — those in Gen Z — identify more broadly as LGBT, according to a Gallup poll, a striking increase from the generations before it.

In schools, gender identity is often expressed through a change of names and pronouns. Some parents already know about their child’s transition by then. But others don’t, and may not be told in the short term if a student feels they would not be supportive.

The approach angers many parents.

Parents across many political beliefs argue that they can’t be supportive if no one tells them that their child came out. They also point out that withholding the information seems wrong, when schools routinely send notes home to parents about lesser matters — playground tussles, missing homework, social events.

A California mother who lives in a suburb outside the Bay Area went two years without knowing her sixth grader had transitioned at school. “Basically, I was the last one to find out,” said the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her child’s privacy. “They were all saving my kid from me.” The mother only made the discovery, she said, when she took her child to the hospital one day and a doctor told her. She was stunned.

Erica Anderson, a clinical psychologist who is a transgender woman and former president of the U.S. Professional Association for Transgender Health, said leaving parents in the dark is not the answer. “If there are issues between parents and children, they need to be addressed,” she said. “It’s not like kicking a can down the road. It only postpones, in my opinion, and aggravates any conflict that may exist.”

In Maryland, a sixth-grade student told his parents a couple of months after starting to transition at school. His father said one of his reactions was: “Oh my God, how did I not know this was happening with my own child?” But he also thought of his growing up. If he were a trans teen, he said, “I can’t imagine I would have wanted to come out to my parents first.” One thing the father never expected was the school to tell him: “Your kid is the only one who should do that,” he said.

Ideally, Joel Baum of the nonprofit Gender Spectrum said, families of gender questioning students would be able to say: “Even if we don’t quite understand, we see you. We get you. Let’s talk about it.”

Students including Alex Prince, 16, of Virginia Beach, who identifies as nonbinary, said those who are coming out best understand what they could be up against at home. “I have many friends who have parents that would kick them out if they found out they were queer, or beat them so badly they could wind up dead,” he said. “That’s not an exaggeration — that’s the environment that LGBTQ+ teens exist in.”

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Nationally, LGBTQ students have been under attack, with a cascade of anti-transgender legislation under consideration around the country — more than 300 bills this year — as conservatives push to exclude transgender athletes from school sports, limit lessons that teachers can give about gender identity, remove LGBTQ-affirming books from school libraries and criminalize efforts to provide hormone therapy and puberty blockers to minors. Political campaigns and cable TV have driven up the tension, with Republican candidates attacking transgender rights and Fox host Laura Ingraham referring to public schools as virtual “grooming centers for gender-identity radicals.”

The Biden administration has pushed back, proposing changes in Title IX that are expected to increase protections for transgender students. On Friday, a federal judge temporarily blocked enforcement of earlier guidance issued by the administration to protect LGBTQ people in schools.

In central Florida, Jaime Jara’s youngest is a trans girl. She kept her birth name, and teachers at her elementary school welcomed her. By first grade, everyone used her chosen pronouns: she/her. Now 10 years old, she has close friends and feels like she belongs. She loves dancing and TikTok.

“She’s a regular 10-year-old kid,” Jara said.

Jara knows that her daughter is fortunate to find a world so accepting — and certainly better-off than some of Jara’s students. About 2 percent of high school students identify as transgender, according to the CDC.

A history teacher, Jara has brightened her high school classroom with rainbow-colored accents and a “safe space” sign on the door, and she hears sometimes from transgender students who struggle at home, she said. “If your own parent is not accepting, how heartbreaking is that?” she said.

The political climate has reinforced feelings of rejection, she said.

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Since 2006, more than 25 states have adopted laws or regulations that affirmed LGBTQ rights — on bullying, school facilities, suicide prevention, health programs, sex education — according to the research organization Child Trends, but 2021 marked a turning point. “I really think that the tide turned from a more affirming and supportive type of policy environment to one that is more exclusionary,” said Deborah Temkin, who led the research.

In Florida, the “Parental Rights in Education” bill, which critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” law, has fired up supporters and critics. The measure, which took effect July 1, restricts instruction on LGBTQ issues at schools and does not allow school employees to keep from parents any issues that affect their child’s mental, emotional or physical health.

As Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed the bill, he pointed to a case in Leon County, where January Littlejohn and her husband are suing the public school system for what they alleged was concealing information about their 13-year-old’s gender-identity transition, violating their rights as parents and harming their relationship with the teen. A spokesman for the school system did not return calls, but the superintendent has said that the situation was misrepresented and that the district was following instructions from Littlejohn.

More recently, the school board in Leon County voted in late June to turn a spotlight on transgender students — mandating that all families be informed when “a student who is open about their gender identity” is part of a PE class or on an overnight trip, in case other parents want to remove their children.

In Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, public schools in the college town of Harrisonburg are among the most recent legal battle ground. School officials there keep student gender transitions confidential and say that students’ gender identities should be affirmed, according to a staff presentation last October. “The ultimate goal is to help a student safely come out to their parents with support from trusted adults,” the presentation said.

But a lawsuit brought in June by six parents and teachers — all said to be practicing Christians who believe “each of us is born with a fixed biological sex that is a gift from God” argues that the district’s practices usurp parents’ rights, violate free speech protections and force school employees to go against their religious faith. “Public schools should never hide information from or lie to parents about a child’s mental health,” the complaint, filed by ADF, begins. “And schools should never compel teachers to perpetrate such a deception.”

In a publicly posted exchange of letters between ADF and the school system, Superintendent Michael Richards said he had not received complaints in line with what lawyers presented and was not inclined to support rescinding a practice “that offers support and resources to some of our most vulnerable students and their families.” The district uses “a team approach” to address student and family needs case by case, he said.

Earlier, 14 parents working with the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty and ADF, sued schools in Madison, Wis., over guidelines that allow students to adopt gender-affirming names and pronouns without telling parents.

For schools, approaches vary

To support those transitioning socially at school, some school systems create a “gender support plan” that outlines how a student’s situation will be handled — with details about restrooms, extracurricular activities, trusted adults and privacy.

But school systems take different approaches, and some practices evolve.

In Colorado’s Jeffco School District, outside of Denver, officials honor names and pronouns that align with students’ gender identities. But the 69,000-student system brings parents into the conversation as a way to support students, said spokeswoman Kimberly Eloe, pointing out there is no real privacy in place if people are using new names and pronouns in school.

In Maryland’s largest school system, parent involvement is ideal but not required. “Under the guidelines, we do support the student,” said Gregory Edmundson, director of student welfare and compliance in Montgomery County, with 159,000 students.

“If they are not out to their families, then we honor and respect that,” he said. “It’s not about trying to keep secrets. It’s about us trying to keep kids safe.”

In the last three years, 350 to 400 Montgomery County students have completed gender identity support plans to change names and pronouns to match their gender identity, Edmundson said. One question asks the student to rate their parents’ support level, from a low of 1 to a high of 10.

Montgomery County is being sued, too. Lawyer Frederick W. Claybrook Jr., who is listed on the complaint with the Christian conservative National Legal Foundation and an attorney based in the county, took the school system to court in 2020 on behalf of three parents.

“Parents should be in the loop on this kind of decision,” Claybrook said. “The fact that they aren’t doesn’t even allow them to help their children get professional care, which might well be very supportive of their transitional choice. But this is a difficult decision that can have some very life-changing effects — and parents are principally in charge of helping their children through those types of situations.”

Mark Eckstein, an LGBTQ advocate and father of two in the Maryland school system, said he understands that parents would not want to be excluded. And since parent notification rests on how supportive parents are, he asks: How does that get measured? Still, he maintains that the safety of the child outweighs the need of the parent to know. But the goal, he said, is to include everyone.

“This is not us against them,” he said. “We have to all come together to support these issues because they’re not easy, they’re complicated.”

For a mother of three living outside Seattle — historically liberal in her politics — the complications began when her child was in fifth grade. One day she opened an email from a teacher and did not recognize the student’s name. At first she thought the teacher had sent it to the wrong parent.

She soon realized it was her daughter. The fifth-grader had taken on a new name and male pronouns in school. “I feel like they lied to us by omission,” the mother said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect her child’s privacy.

The experience led to a couple years of home-schooling, which coincided with the pandemic. She says her daughter now identifies again as a girl. The mother said she was not bothered by the child thinking through issues of sex and gender. “A lot of us tried on different identities when we were young,” she said. But being transgender could eventually lead to medical treatment, she said, and “once a kid says this, there is the automatic assumption that it has to be true.” Even more, “they are protecting children from parents without ever giving us a chance to be supportive.”

“They call us if they’re going to give our kids a Tylenol or if they have a scratch, but not with this?” she said.

Baetsen, who came out to their Maryland teacher while in eighth grade, said it is important that schools make sure not to out students. Baetsen finally told their parents in ninth grade, finding their parents were “very, very supportive,” asking questions but understanding. “You don’t know how people are going to react,” Baetsen said.