There’s one gender-neutral restroom at Parkway West High School. It’s in the nurse’s office.
Depending on where her classes are, getting there can be a long walk for Leslie. She’s a 15-year-old with a punk-rock look: bright blue hair, dark jeans that are ripped at the knees, a T-shirt and Converse All-Star sneakers. Leslie was born female, but now identifies as gender-fluid. Neither gender feels right to her, which is why she’s uncomfortable with using single-sex, multi-stall bathrooms.
“Some of my teachers understand, but it’s hard to tell my teachers because sometimes they’ll be, like: ‘Where have you been?’ And it’s, like, in front of all of the class and I don’t want to tell the whole class it’s because of my gender identity because I’m kind of scared to say that out loud,” she said. “It’s difficult.”
Max Chappell came out as transmasculine — identifying as male after being born female — after his sophomore year at Kirkwood High School. Other than a few hiccups with his new name on attendance sheets, Chappell said coming out to his school was simple. And the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, of which Chappell was a member before graduating in May, worked with the administration to have two staff restrooms changed to gender-neutral facilities.
“I think that the school shows its support as much as it can,” Chappell said.
Neither high school has a formal procedure for accommodating transgender students. In fact, according to a review by St. Louis Public Radio, 35 of the 41 public school districts and charter schools in St. Louis and St. Louis County have no official procedures for working with transgender students. Instead, they respond to requests as they come.
Several school administrators said they’ve had success accommodating students' specific needs and requests on a case-by-case basis, but acknowledge it’s only a temporary solution. But, with Obama-era federal standards in limbo, education attorneys and other experts believe the wait-and-see approach is ripe for a lawsuit if applied unevenly.
“They are doing their best, most schools, to kind of navigate the situation child-by-child, case-by-case,” said Jaimie Hileman, a St. Louis-based, transgender-rights advocate who has advised educators on LGBT inclusion and accommodations. But, she added, “that’s not sustainable in the long term.”
Lack of guidance
Transgender students’ needs are about more than restrooms: Many students want their names changed on attendance sheets, the freedom to wear clothing in which they feel comfortable, and the right to play sports on the team that matches their gender identity.
However, restroom access is the most controversial because of concerns about privacy and possible sexual harassment.
Missouri was one of 16 Republican-controlled states that considered a so-called “bathroom bill” during the 2017 legislative session, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Missouri’s proposal, which didn’t make it out of a Senate committee, would have required transgender students to use the restroom or locker room that aligned with their sex at birth.
Jennifer Bird is a parent in the Lindbergh School District, which does not have a codified policy. She testified in favor of the “bathroom bill” in Jefferson City. She believes that transgender students using a restroom or locker room that aligns with their gender identity, rather than sex at birth, is disruptive. And, according to her, all students have a right to “be educated in the least disruptive environment.”
“There is a solution and it’s an individual room,” she said in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio. She added that a transgender student’s “journey” should be respected, but it should also be private.
“We can’t force you to live a certain way, but we do have rules and regulations,” she said.
To date, only North Carolina has passed a bill that applied to schools and other public spaces, the NCSL said, but it was later repealed. Texas lawmakers will reconsider a bill similar to the one in North Carolina in an upcoming special session.
Last year, the Obama administration issued guidance on how schools should interpret laws meant to ban sex-based discrimination in education — known as Title IX — for transgender students. Then, this year, President Trump withdrew that guidance, essentially kicking the decision back to individual states.
Because Missouri doesn’t have anti-bullying or non-discrimination laws for students based on gender identity, school administrators are left to find a balance between legal guidance and their ideal school culture.
St. Louis Public Radio asked each school district in St. Louis County, St. Louis Public Schools and charter school operators whether they have a policy to accommodate transgender students. Six do.
- Five of the six schools with official policies allow transgender students to use the restroom of their choice. One limits restroom access to a student’s legal gender.
- Fourteen districts said their accommodation of transgender students is based on broader, but longstanding, non-discrimination language that bars bullying and harassment.
- At least three schools said they have not yet had a student identify as transgender.
The Hazelwood School District’s Board of Education is the only one in the county to have voted on a transgender policy. Three charter schools in St. Louis — Lafayette Prep, City Garden Montessori and Preclarus Mastery — also have policies.
Maplewood Richmond Heights School District’s policy hasn’t been officially adopted by its school board, so Superintendent Karen Hall calls it a “procedure” that’s written and issued to staff, but is not in the district’s rule book.
“We wanted to make sure, as we moved forward, that we were systemic about our approach in supporting students and also families,” Hall said, adding that she won’t request the board to codify the procedure until there is better state or federal guidance.
The board for Preclarus Mastery Academy, a small charter school located in St. Louis’ Grand Center neighborhood, voted on a transgender student policy in April. It allows a transgender student to only use a restroom that conforms with their “legal gender” (in other words, biological sex at birth), not gender identity.
Lafayette Prep’s policy allows students to use a facility that aligns with their gender identity. City Garden Montessori leaves the decision up to transgender students’ families.
For the vast majority of schools though, the practice has been more informal.
“We felt we haven’t had to draft policy in the past, as we’ve come up with policies on an individual basis,” Brentwood Superintendent David Faulkner said. “We respond based on what students ask us to do.”
For guidance, school boards can turn to draft policies by the Missouri School Boards’ Association and the Missouri Consultants for Education.
The MSBA wrote two versions of the drafts after getting requests from school districts — one allowing for full access to facilities (which the Hazelwood school board adopted), and the other limiting facility use only to a student’s biological sex at birth. It doesn’t endorse either.
“It’s particularly difficult to write policy on something as controversial as this, particularly when the law is not clear,” MSBA staff attorney Susan Goldammer said. “... we crossed our fingers and hoped the courts would settle this issue so that there wasn’t so much confusion.”
Thomas Mickes, Missouri Consultants for Education's attorney, is more assertive on schools’ need for a set policy, saying: “Once you start making ad hoc decisions, you’re going to have inconsistent applications, you’re going to have discrimination claims filed.”
His firm’s draft policy “respects the legal rights of all students” by letting transgender students change their names and wear whatever clothing they want. But they can’t use a restroom or locker room that aligns with their gender identity, recommending schools instead install gender-neutral restrooms.
Leslie has been lucky to be in a school that’s welcomed and accepted her, her parents said, but navigating her gender identity at school is still full of unknowns. St. Louis Public Radio is not using Leslie’s full name or her family’s last name to protect her privacy, as she’s been subjected to bullying by classmates.
Leslie first began identifying as male in the eighth grade, and her middle school was quick to respond to a name change and other needs. But being a boy wasn’t quite the right fit.
“Every once in awhile, I’d still kind of want to be a girl,” Leslie said. “And some days, I was just like, I don’t even know if I want to be a girl or a boy, I just want to be Leslie.”
When she got to high school, she started going by Leslie again. And, again, counselors and teachers were welcoming.
Her parents have embraced her new identity, though they’re reluctant to stir up controversy at her school by being overly demanding of acceptance. They did find a parent support group for other families with transgender children.
“I definitely wish there was — just because I know the challenges of other families — something a little bit more organized and principled in (the school district’s) approach,” Leslie’s dad, Peter, said. “So that to put some certainty into those families lives when so many other aspects might be very uncertain.”
For Leslie, the uncertainty extends beyond the restroom. It’s gym class that’s the looming fear, and another blank slate when it comes to how schools in the St. Louis area, Missouri and across the U.S. accommodate transgender students.
Leslie’s unsure about where to change, but also what to change into. Parkway’s physical education curriculum includes swimming and Leslie doesn’t want to wear a swimsuit in front of her classmates.
“I don’t want to go in a pool with kids that hate me, basically,” she said. “That’s really scary.”
Parkway spokeswoman Cathy Kelly said swimming is a six-week unit that the school considers an important life skill. The district has granted exemptions based on religious beliefs or physical disabilities, but Kelly said she could not recall any waiver requests from transgender students.
Leslie will likely be the first.
Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney
Correction: Valley Park School District has a firm restroom policy for transgender students. A previous St. Louis Public Radio report failed to note their policy.