Daniel P. Kelley is principal of Smithfield High School in Smithfield, R.I., and president-elect of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
When a student at the school where I serve as principal — Smithfield High School in Rhode Island — declared her transgender identification, we responded the only way we knew how. We recognized the child’s unique needs and accommodated her to the best of our ability. We designated restrooms and locker-room areas where any student could go if they wanted private facilities — not a particularly heavy lift even in my well-worn 50-year-old school. A few years ago, working in collaboration with an LGBT student, we organized a professional development event for our staff so they could hear first hand about the challenges that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students encounter every day. This turned out to be both enlightening professional development and an empowering experience in amplifying the student’s voice.
I would like to say we are extraordinary — and in many ways we are. But in this regard, we are like thousands of schools across the country that respond compassionately and supportively to the needs of transgender students, and did so even before the Obama administration issued its transgender rights guidance last May. While the guidance validated our efforts, it wasn’t what made us do the right thing. By extension, rescinding the guidance isn’t going to make us stop.
But then, I’m fortunate to be in a state that believes that transgender students merit specific protections, stemming from their unique needs and the reality that they are victimized and at risk of suicide at higher rates than any other school population. That same belief prompted my professional organization, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, to call on the Obama administration last year to codify the rights of transgender students to simply use the bathroom in peace.
The Obama-era guidance sent the right message. But now that transgender protectionsare for states to defineinstead of a civil right, I fear for the transgender students in states that do not follow that consensus. More immediately, I fear the new, intentionally watered-down guidance issued this week by the Trump administration sends a message that diminishes the value of transgender students in my own school and district — students who are already marginalized by a culture that resists making a place for them. I fear the new guidance will undermine our school’s efforts to create that place for them. I fear that the new guidance will embolden their would-be harassers both in school and in the surrounding community.
I will gladly triple my efforts to ensure we have a safe and supportive school environment where each student can learn at the highest levels and fulfill his or her potential. However, it is hard not to resent a federal government that does not share that commitment — that actively seeks, in fact, to make those efforts harder rather than easier.
Discussions about the transgender guidance rely on policies, labels and abstractions that make it easy to maintain an impersonal distance. But this is personal for me. I look into the face of a transgender student, and I see the aspirations and dreams of a child bursting with potential. I also see pain and fear. I see the perplexed shame and horror of one falsely considered a sexual predator for simply using facilities aligned with their gender identity. I see an awareness that they are targeted for humiliation for being who they are. They are my kids. And as our nation shares a common destiny, they are your kids as well.