Using a bathroom at Richard Montgomery High School usually involved a long walk to the nurse’s office for Zander Phillips, a 17-year-old senior who was born as a female but who identifies as a male.
Phillips, who wrote extensively about his experience as a transman earlier this year, didn’t feel comfortable using the girls’ bathroom, something he was told to do on a regular basis in middle school.
After approaching the administration at Richard Montgomery as a freshman, Phillips and staff agreed that he could use the bathroom in the nurse’s room.
“For a while that worked,” Phillips said. “My issue became that the nurse’s room is on the other side of the building and I would usually miss 10 minutes of class every time I had to leave class.”
Phillips doesn’t face that issue this school year because he is in a dual enrollment program at Montgomery College, meaning he doesn’t attend classes in Richard Montgomery’s Rockville building.
Still, he’s hoping Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) “makes a stronger effort” when it comes to accommodating transgender and gender non-conforming students, something Phillips said could include gender neutral bathrooms in school buildings.
Figuring out how to deal with issues presented by transgender and gender non-conforming students is the task of a working group of MCPS administrators. Led by Lori-Christina Webb, executive director of the school system’s Office of the Chief Academic Officer, the group is examining procedures for transgender and gender non-conforming students.
Webb said the group, which at this point is not expected to recommend any formal policy changes, has looked at what other school systems do when it comes to bathroom use and changing a student’s name in school records if the name hasn’t been legally changed. She said the group has been considering issues for the last 18 months.
MCPS administrators now rely on the school system’s broader policies for creating comfortable environments for all students.
“The practice in our schools is that we work with a student and the family to come up with a plan that’s going to work for that student,” Webb said. “So that could mean the student uses the bathroom of the gender asserted. It could mean a gender-neutral place. It depends on the needs and wishes of the student.”
Webb said the school system also works to ensure the confidentiality of a student going through a gender transition and “to reduce any stigma and marginalization.”
At one MCPS elementary school, the case-by-case approach resulted in a letter at the start of this school year notifying parents of other students that one of the students at the school had socially transitioned.
The father of the student, who Bethesda Beat is not identifying to protect the student’s identity, said the letter was sent through the school at the parents’ request based on conversations those parents had with parents of other gender non-conforming and transgender students.
“We determined that it was a good idea to let a select group of students know, students that our child felt needed to know,” the father said. “For my child, it’s a very important step and something [the child] has been dealing with for many years. As you can probably imagine, it’s important that [the child] find acceptance and is not confronted with it on a daily basis.”
The father said it’s particularly challenging for his child to be called by a former name or to be referred to by the wrong gender.
“It’s hard for some people to grasp,” the father said. “The kids have been very accepting. There’s been some questioning from older kids and parents of those kids, but we’ve been very, very fortunate in this area that everybody has really been behind us. We simply wanted to give parents a chance to anticipate questions that their kids might have, to have a chance to discuss it.”
The father said the staff at the school has been “very willing to find ways to make it work.”
While the question of which bathroom to use is the most common question surrounding transgender students, the father said issues as simple as changing the student’s computer login or name on an attendance sheet have popped up.
“The long and short of it is these kids need our love and support,” the father said. “They are really dealing with a challenge. To see them blossom and really come into themselves when they can reaffirm their true gender identity is a wonderful thing.”
Webb said her group’s examination of the school system’s procedures was prompted when the central office started getting more questions from school administrators about how to report the gender of transgender or gender non-conforming students to the state.
“We are required by the state to do reporting and one of the things we report out is gender,” Webb said. “We got more and more questions like: ‘A student transitioned from male to female and wants to use a female name and is identified in our school as a female, but can we change the name in the student information system?’ ”
Webb said that right now, the school system will work to change the gender in its records, but “it’s an evolving field” and discrepancies between county and state school records could potentially create problems if that student is eligible to receive benefits such as food stamps.
“When you talk about a school system of 156,000 students, you’re talking about a small number so it’s not going to change drastically the state reporting,” Webb said. “But we’re meeting with the state to have those conversations.”
Phillips said he regularly talks to other transgender or gender non-conforming students in the county. He said school-wide anti-bullying programs implemented over the past few years have also seemed to curb any teasing or negative comments related to his gender identity.
But he’d like to see the school system include at least one gender-neutral bathroom per floor in its buildings.
Webb said MCPS would continue to continue to watch the issue.
“We are really committed to ensuring that every student in MCPS feels welcome and respected and feels that their dignity is recognized,” Webb said. “We want to create an environment and an educational community where all students can thrive.”