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Schools get guidelines on transgender students

Officials say they are ready to put rules into place

Public school officials said on Saturday that they are ready to implement new state guidelines that allow transgender students to use bathrooms and play on sports teams designated for their preferred genders, among other provisions.

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released the guidelines on Friday, following passage of a Massachusetts law that took effect in July barring discrimination of transgender students in public schools.

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The department’s commissioner, Mitchell D. Chester, and his spokesman could not be reached for comment on Saturday.

Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said in a phone interview that his members have known about the impending guidelines for some time and that he does not expect districts to have any significant problems implementing them.

“These are complicated issues, and we need to respect every child,” Scott said. “We need to ensure that everybody has a right in school to feel that they have a place. . . . In that regard, it’s absolutely imperative.”

The education department’s 11-page document laying out the guidelines does not specify when they take effect, though Scott said he presumed they are effective immediately. The department issued the guidelines after soliciting input from administrators, parents, and other stakeholders.

The guidelines call for school officials to assess cases individually, and they allow for flexibility in making accommodations.

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For example, transgender students may use bathrooms, locker rooms, and changing areas for the gender with which they identify, but those who are not comfortable doing so should be provided with alternatives, such as a unisex or nurses station’s bathroom.

But transgender students cannot be denied access to their preferred bathroom or locker room because of other students’ discomfort.

“School administrators and counseling staff should work with students to address the discomfort and to foster understanding of gender identity, to create a school culture that respects and values all students,” the guidelines state.

Also, transgender students must be allowed to participate in sports “in a manner consistent with their gender identity,” and the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, the state regulatory body for school sports, must defer to “the gender determination made by the student’s district.”

An association spokesman could not be reached for comment on Saturday.

Matthew Wilder, a spokesman for the Boston Public Schools, said in an e-mail that the district does not track the number of enrolled transgender students. He also could not provide details on any such students who are currently playing on sports teams for their preferred gender, or using appropriate changing areas.

“I’m sure there are, but that is information that is extremely confidential, and therefore only a limited group of people in the organization would have access to it,” Wilder said.

He said the city already exceeds the requirements for accommodating transgender youth.

“We feel as though we are actually well ahead of these guidelines in Boston,” Wilder said. “This is nothing new for our school leaders, and we want to be able to support them any way we can in this area. We updated our internal guidelines last year, and Superintendent [Carol] Johnson has appointed an internal committee to ensure we are meeting and exceeding all requirements.”

Deborah Peeples of Shrewsbury, whose 23-year-old son is transgender, was part of a group that helped the state craft the guidelines.

“I think that guidance like this is really critical to students’ well-being and will really save lives,” said Peeples, who facilitates a support group for parents of transgender children.

The guidelines also call on schools to use transgender students’ preferred names and gender-specific pronouns, and reflect their preferred genders on transcripts.

“I think that most of the schools I’ve heard of are doing a pretty good job, but it takes a great deal of work between the parents and the schools to figure things out,” she said. “Each time a school system is faced with this for the first time . . . it’s kind of been like reinventing the wheel.”

Since their release on Friday, the Massachusetts guidelines have drawn praise from transgender advocates and fierce criticism from detractors.

Gunner Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, said in a recent statement that his group “is grateful to [the department] for issuing such practical guidance and identifying the steps that schools can take to create a safer and more welcoming environment for transgender youth in our Commonwealth’s schools.”

Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, countered on Friday that the “overriding issue with this new policy is that opening girls’ bathrooms to boys is an invasion of privacy and a threat to all students’ safety.”

The guidelines state that a school should accept a student’s transgender identity when there is “consistent and uniform assertion” of it or “any other evidence that the gender-related identity is sincerely held as part of a person’s core identity.”

Schools can question the assertion only if officials have “a credible basis” for suspecting that the identity is being used for “some improper purpose.”

The guidelines do not elaborate on that point, nor do they outline an appeal process for students and families.

Scott, of the superintendent’s association, said he was not aware of any specific avenues for appeal outside of litigation.

“No school district is going to want to deal with the issue in that way,” he said, adding that principals, guidance counselors, and other school employees must use “a high degree of sensitivity” when making judgments on individual cases.

Massachusetts is one of 13 states, along with Washington, D.C., that have laws prohibiting discrimination in schools based on sexual orientation and gender identity, according to the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, a New York-based advocacy group.

Globe correspondent Jeremy C. Fox contributed to this report. Travis Andersen can be reached at tandersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.

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