Across San Francisco Bay Area, At Least 73,000 Students Attend Schools That Don't Educate Teachers on Transgender Issues

An NBC Bay Area Investigation reveals a wide disparity in teacher training relating to transgender issues

A survey of the 20 largest school districts in the Bay Area reveals a wide disparity in the level and frequency of teacher training relating to transgender issues, according to an NBC Bay Area Investigation.

While all 20 districts report providing such training to some of their staff, only 13 districts offer that training to all of their teachers, four school districts do not provide training to any of their teachers, and three school districts provide only certain teachers with training on transgender issues.

The investigation revealed that across the Bay Area's largest school districts, nearly one in seven students attends a school that does not provide teachers with training on how to best address the needs of transgender students.

“When a school district says this isn't necessary, what they really mean is you, trans person, are not necessary,” said Cal, a recent high school graduate who identifies as transgender. “When you don't really have anyone at school, which is where you spend the majority of the day, who is respecting and reassuring a really basic part of who you are, it’s horrible.”

Cal, who did not want to provide a last name, identifies as a mix of male and female.

“So instead of being referred to as ‘he or she’ ... I like people to use 'they/them' pronouns because they're more neutral,” said Cal.

However, some high school teachers refused, according to Cal.

“It can lead to this feeling of not belonging and this intense feeling of not only not belonging but not being seen.”

For Cal, those feelings of isolation led to dangerous behavior.

“I would just cut myself under the desk,” said Cal. “I used a mechanical pencil or pen, mostly on my left wrist. I did bleed in class, and I covered it up.”

Even when teachers tried to be supportive, Cal found many didn’t know how.

“Like they would ask me questions that … they wouldn't have asked a non-trans person like, 'Oh man, are you getting surgery, are you going to, you know, change your genitals?’ And that's not a thing you ask a high schooler, in any circumstance.”

Cal began using such sitations as teaching opportunities for educators. When one English teacher marked down Cal's paper for using “they” and “them” pronouns, Cal showed the teacher that the Oxford English Dictionary accepts using “they” and “them” as singular pronouns. Oxford even cites examples of Shakespeare doing it. Regardless, Cal wondered, “Why is grammar more important than me feeling respected?”

Cal credits a combination of family support and therapy in overcoming obstacles in high school. Activism also made a difference. As a student, Cal advocated for more education for teachers.

Fremont Unified Begins Offering Teacher Training on Gender Issues

Beginning this year, educators throughout Cal’s former school district, Fremont Unified, are now receiving additional training on transgender issues, led by the group Gender Spectrum.

“I know I’m going to say the wrong thing. Anyone ever experience that?” asked instructor Joel Baum, as he warmed up the audience of teachers and administrators at a campuswide training session in August.

Baum has traveled the country over the past decade teaching close to 30,000 educators about gender. His sessions tackle everything from stereotypes to the growing list of terms used to describe one’s gender.

To make his point, Baum shared a video from internet blogger Ashley Mardell, who races through a cacophony of transgender terms as the words fill the screen. “Agender, transexual, neutrois, gender variant, demi girl, demi guy,” she rattles off.

Baum tells the audience, “We’ll sometimes hear people say, ‘Well, don’t you think kids are too young to be learning about gender?’ I feel like that’s the wrong question. I mean, that ship has sailed. Kids are learning about gender all the time, all the time, everywhere they go. To me the question is ‘What role do we want to play to make sure they’re getting accurate information?’”

Baum’s workshop aims to tackle the very stereotypes students face each day, even drawing attention to advertisements for popular children’s toys: an intricate telescope targeting boys, a smaller, less expensive pink version for girls, a diamond ring for a “sweet baby girl,” and a saw for a “busy baby boy.”

Gender Spectrum (August 25, 2017)
A slide shown at the Gender Spectrum seminar to illustrate how even infants are subjected to gender stereotypes.

'When it Comes to Gender, Kids Are Who They Are'

He also showed teachers how a gender inclusive conversation can flow naturally out of any lesson plan.

“She became very competitive when she played football. Adopting the voice of a student, he says, “Mr Baum! Girls don’t play football!” “Well, actually … it’s a spelling test,” he said. “But I’m gonna help you understand a little bit about gender through spelling.”

He continued giving examples of how teachers can incorporate gender issues into current events, history and even math.

“When it comes to gender and gender identity, kids are who they are,” said Baum. “What we're doing is helping them figure that out and give them language to understand the experience they're already having.”

NBC Bay Area (August 25, 2017)
Joel Baum, from Gender Spectrum, instructs teachers from the Fremont Unified School District about how to handle transgender issues in the classroom.

'It Sucks That This Isn't Going To Affect Me ...'

As a recent high school graduate now heading to college, Cal won’t get the benefit of the new training sessions at his former school district.

“It sucks that this isn’t going to affect me,” said Cal, “but I’m really glad that it finally happened and that other people at this school are hopefully going to be treated better.”

The number of children who openly identify as transgender at school is expected to rise, in part, because of new clinical guidelines that allow kids to begin changing their bodies at younger ages. The guidelines, first reported by the Investigative Unit, also open the door for children, some as young as 3, to begin changing their names and wardrobes to begin embracing the gender they choose rather than the sex they were assigned at birth.

NBC Bay Area, September 18, 2017
While struggling to fit in at school, Cal found acceptance in cross-country running, where boys and girls train together. Cal is transgender, and identifies as both male and female.

Teachers Cite Parents As Major Concern in Teaching Gender Sensitivity

In a survey conducted at one Bay Area school district, 83 percent of teachers said they were discouraged from teaching gender inclusivity because of “dissatisfaction from parents.” That statistic points to one potential reason for the lack of transgender education at some schools. While the latest research shows that transgender kids benefit from a supportive environment, some parents worry about the effect that gender lessons will have on their children.

“We need to make sure that we've created the best learning environment for our students,” said Dr. Kim Wallace, superintendent of the Fremont Unified School District, who made the decision to provide gender training to each of the district’s teachers. “If [students] are too preoccupied with the person next to them making negative comments or feeling uncomfortable in their own skin, they're not learning the material that we're presenting.”

Seventy-five percent of transgender students feel unsafe at school, where they’re often subjected to violence and bullying, according to a survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality. As a result, transgender students have lower GPAs, miss school more often and often decide not to continue their education, according to the survey.

NBC Bay Area
Dr. Kim Wallace is Superintendent for the Fremont Unified School District

Scope, Frequency of Teacher Training Varies Widely

Even among school districts that provide teachers with training on transgender issues, the scope and frequency of instruction varies widely.

The San Mateo-Foster City school district, for example, contracts private instructors to lead gender trainings for teachers. The district also offers 12 hours of "gender-expansive coaching" for teachers.

Other school districts, such as Fairfield-Suisun Unified and San Jose Unified, rely on administrators to provide teachers a review of the district's nondiscrimination policies, which reference trasngender issues. At Fairfield-Suisun Unified, such reviews are held at schools annually. San Jose Unified, however, only offers its training "to new hires and as changes occur."

Are Schools Educating Educators on Trans Issues?

In response to the Investigative Unit survey, four school districts -- Eastside Union, Napa Valley Unified, Vallejo City Unified and Livermore Valley Joint Unified -- said they do not provide any of their teachers with training specific to transgender issues. The districts collectively serve more than 73,000 students.

On Sept. 8, Vallejo Unified Interim Superintendent Stephen Goldstone responded to the Investigative Unit's interview request by stating that the district planned to provide additional details on its training protocol the following week.

"Then we can sit and chat," Goldstone wrote in an email.

Goldstone provided the Investigative Unit with additional details on the district's teacher training protocol on Sept. 15, but his email did not address the pending interview request, nor did it mention that he was submitting the information on what was his last day as an employee of the district, which had been scheduled for some time, according to district officials. Cheri Summers, chief academic officer for Vallejo City Unified, later declined an interview request on behalf of the district.

Officials at Eastside Union and Napa Valley Unified school districts also declined to be interviewed. 

Of the four school districts that do offer transgender education to teachers, only the Livermore Valley Joint Unified school district agreed to be interviewed. 

“I will be the first one to say this is an area in which I’m not an expert,” said Chris Van Schaack, deputy superintendent for Livermore Valley Unified School District. “I don’t disagree with the idea that teachers need more in-depth training. Gender biases and pronoun usage and things like that -- those are things that we need to become more comfortable with.”

NBC Bay Area
Chris Van Schaack is Deputy Superintendent of Livermore Valley Unified School District (Oct. 6, 2017)

Van Schaack explained that the district’s current strategy includes training for principals, vice principals and other administrators, who are then available to assist teachers in the event questions arise.

Van Schaack, however, said he is not opposed to exploring the idea of providing schoolwide training sessions for teachers in the future.

“I do think it’s necessary,” he said. “I will say, we haven’t done that yet.”


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