Restroom-01SMMUSD HDQTRS — Santa Monica High senior Ruhi Bhalla remembers how she and a couple of students from the Gay Straight Alliance went to the state capitol to lobby for a bill that would give transgender students in California public schools equal opportunities and access to programs.

“We really are all for it,” Bhalla said of AB 1266. The bill, from Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), states that a transgender student is permitted to participate in sex-segregated school programs and activities, including athletic teams and competitions, and use facilities consistent with his or her gender identity, irrespective of the gender listed on the pupil’s records. Facilities include restrooms and locker rooms.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill into law earlier this month.

The existing law prohibits public schools from discriminating on the basis of gender, gender identity, and gender expression, according to the California legislative information website. Existing law requires that participation in a particular physical education activity or sport, if required of students of one sex, be available to students of each sex.

All students should have the opportunity to fully participate and succeed in school,” Evan Westrup, a spokesman for the governor, wrote in an e-mail.

Bhalla, who is president of the Gay Straight Alliance, said she’d been working on getting the bill passed for the past two years.

“Our school wants to be more transgender inclusive and give all students equal opportunities so that every student is successful,” Bhalla said.

Since the law was just passed, officials in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District will be examining policies to make sure the district is in compliance and will be working with principals and teachers on what the law means.

In practice, the district has already been fostering inclusivity among transgender students at its campuses, Mark Kelly, director of student services for the SMMUSD, said. The district has been “responsive,” he said, adding that meant allowing uses of restroom facilities consistent with gender identity.

“We have always supported students who identify with a gender other than the one to which they were born, and our staff members are responsive to parent and student request regarding using the alternative pronoun and accommodations regarding restroom use,” Superintendent Sandra Lyon said.

For example, district officials work with teachers, parents and kids when changing names and making use of alternative or appropriate nouns, such as when to call someone a “he” or “she,” Kelly said.

Kelly, who was the principal of Malibu High School for eight years, said he’d never heard of any cases where any parents recorded discomfort nor has he had any schools report any problems recently.

“We deal with it on a case by case basis,” Kelly said. “In some schools, we have unisex bathrooms in some places. We deal with the bathroom question in a matter that’s most comfortable with the child and the parents. We will continue to foster inclusive schools that are supportive of our students.”

In addition to updating the school policy to reflect the law, Kelly said he will meet with school principals in monthly meetings to let them know there is a new law in effect.

Kelly said there are instances where a parent or child will let a teacher or counselor know there is a desire to use a different name that identifies with the student’s gender or to use a different pronoun.

“That’s where the principal comes to you for guidance. I tell them, have a conversation with the staff to let them know,” Kelly said. “We don’t want there to be any confusion. You have to talk to make sure the people know.”

SMMUSD prides itself on the strong support of the LGBT community, Lisa Balfus, Samohi’s PTA president, said.

“I really don’t anticipate having any different effect on how kids use facilities,” Balfus said. “We have ample facilities for both genders.”

The law is important because it’s giving transgender students “equal” footing to have success at school, said Drian Juarez, program manager for the Transgender Economic Empowerment Project, which assists transgenders with finding employment. The project is part of The L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center.

Juarez said there were protections in schools for transgender students based on their gender identify, but schools didn’t know what that meant in terms of facilities and activities.

Some of the backlash she’s heard comes from parents who are “confused” and say things like, “I don’t want my child next to someone who is sexually confused,” Juarez said.

“They don’t understand. It’s not about sex, it’s about gender and gender identity,” said Juarez, who made the transition from male to female. “I was in a similar situation as a trans child constantly being physically assaulted and it’s part of the norm. This is really about changing that culture and not making that OK.”

Similarly, she said conservative groups are misinforming the public by saying transgender kids are kids who are sexually confused.

“They’re constantly saying a boy is now going to a girls’ restroom and sees a girl naked. That has happened nowhere,” Juarez said. “We are not playing dress up.”

Kids as young as 5 know their own identity, Juarez said.

“Kids know and as a trans person myself, I had an understanding I was trans at probably the age of 4 or 5,” Juarez said.

The law gives transgender students access to all school programs, said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, a Washington, D.C-based organization dedicated to advancing the equality of transgender people through advocacy, collaboration and empowerment.

Keisling said most educators want to do the right thing for as many students as they can, and now the law helps clarify how they can go about that.

“This is a group of students that’s becoming more and more visible, but [they still] lack of access to really important programs like gym class,” Keisling said. “[The law] just gives these kids, who are much more likely to be bullied, … the understanding that a lot of people do care and they can understand better that being trans they’re just another … student.”

 

ameera@smdp.com