The official student newspaper of Lower Merion High School since 1929

The Merionite

The official student newspaper of Lower Merion High School since 1929

The Merionite

The official student newspaper of Lower Merion High School since 1929

The Merionite

Open letter to administration

LM QSU addresses an open letter to Lower Merion Administration regarding the current status of how the transgender population is being supported.

Dear Superintendent Dr. Steven Yanni and Honorable School Board Members, 

On Friday, February 23rd, LM students, faculty, and community members gathered in a community vigil for Nex Benedict, a 16 year old transgender student who died as a result of transphobic violence in the bathroom of an Oklahoma public high school. They gathered to mourn, and to call attention to a grim reality: transgender students at LM are not separate from the violence or discrimination that Nex Benedict faced. 

In a district that strives to be queer-friendly, the lives of queer and transgender students are still filled with discrimination, inequality, and fear. We call upon LMSD to make changes to their curriculum, infrastructure, and policy to adequately support transgender students. 

LM students are lucky to have access to gender-neutral bathrooms on the second and third floors and inside the front office-a resource that many schools don’t provide at all. But these bathrooms leave significant room for improvement. The reality is that many LM transgender students lose large portions of class time each day waiting for one of very few gender neutral bathrooms to be available, or dart between different floors of the building looking for any available bathrooms. LMSD has a relatively large transgender population compared to many districts, and the few gender-neutral bathrooms that do exist are often occupied. These bathrooms are also not included on school maps, and many students are unaware of their existence. These shortcomings mean that many transgender students struggle to have the same access to bathrooms as cisgender students. 

This lack of access to gender-neutral bathrooms is physically dangerous to transgender students.  A survey of over 27,715 transgender people by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that “nearly one-third (32%) of respondents limited the amount that they ate and drank to avoid using the restroom in the past year, and eight percent (8%) reported having a urinary tract infection, kidney infection, or another kidney-related problem in the past year as a result of avoiding restrooms.” Anecdotally, these experiences remain common even in a school as privileged as LM.

One possible step towards equality is converting some of the two to three staff-only bathrooms on each floor into gender-neutral bathrooms accessible to students, which would significantly decrease waiting times and lack of access to bathrooms for transgender youth. We understand the needs of teachers to be able to quickly access bathrooms between breaks, and affirm that staff and faculty benefit from private bathrooms. That being said, we also acknowledge that most staff members are able to use the gendered stall bathrooms, and would still be able to access the single stall bathrooms, even if they were open to students.

Beyond this proposal, we believe LMSD’s administration should move towards converting one set of gendered bathrooms on each floor into gender neutral stall bathrooms. While we recognize this would inevitably require alterations to physical infrastructure to ensure the comfort and safety of all students, we believe creating all-gender spaces within our schools is a massive step towards normalizing transgender identities and protecting transgender students from rising transphobic violence.

Gender-neutral bathrooms are safer for all students. Despite common concerns that gender-neutral bathrooms will lead to an increase in violence between students, a 2022 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that there is “no evidence that assaults, sex crimes, or voyeurism in public toilets are increased by gender-neutral toilets,’’ Not only that, but “gender-neutral toilets may also be safer for women than gender-segregated toilets, because of higher volumes of users and enhanced natural surveillance.” 

While research shows gender-neutral bathrooms are not dangerous for student safety, the status quo notably is. A survey of nearly 3,700 U.S. teens aged 13-17 by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that 36 percent of transgender students with restricted bathroom or locker room access reported being sexually assaulted in the last twelve months. 

Converting even one set of gendered bathrooms into all-gender stalls would easily triple the number of bathrooms accessible to transgender students. Perhaps more importantly, creating all gender restrooms is a concrete way that LM can shift school culture to be more welcoming for transgender students amidst rising nationwide transphobia. 

Regrettably, the challenges faced by LM’s transgender students extend beyond infrastructure, and into their day-to-day conversations. Many LM transgender students face misgendering on a daily basis from teachers, counselors, and peers, and have come to expect misgendering as an unavoidable part of their education.  According to research by the Journal of Adolescent Health, this experience is deeply harmful to transgender students: when transgender youth do have their identities fully respected, their risk of suicide is decreased by over 50 percent.

Many teachers don’t reliably ask for preferred pronouns and routinely misgender transgender students. While there are many incredible teachers in the building who make the effort to fully accommodate for gender diversity, the day-to-day too often includes several hours of misgendering, discomfort, and othering. LMSD could significantly improve quality of life for transgender students by providing additional training and accountability for teachers, and making it common practice to ask for and respect preferred names and pronouns, and to ask students what name and pronouns they prefer to use when communicating with home. While teachers might receive professional development in these areas, training has been historically insufficient at fostering change. Ideally, it would be a building-wide practice to ask for this information on the first day and to store name and pronoun preferences as a private part of a student’s academic record where it would be visible to teachers and staff.

This is doubly applicable for students in the language department, who may struggle with classroom uses of grammatical gender. While many native speakers of French and Spanish have created adaptations to include transgender and nonbinary people, for example, many queer and transgender Spanish speakers use the “-e” ending as a gender-neutral alternative to the traditional -a and -o, foreign language classes at LM often stick to more traditional approaches. Unfortunately, this leaves out many transgender kids, and has in our experience caused students to drop out of their foreign languages or switch into classes where the risk of in-class misgendering feels lower. LMSD could alleviate this problem by training teachers to ask students which gendered terms and endings they would prefer to use in class, and incorporating the use of gender-neutral terms in foreign languages as a part of the class curriculum. 

Furthermore, we ask that this training in proper pronoun use be extended to counseling and nursing staff as well. Nurses, many of whom received their formal training before current standards on treating transgender patients were adopted (such as the WPATH standards of care), often do not know how to address the needs of transgender students. Misgendering is far too common, and transgender students experiencing pain or complications as a result of their transgender identity (i.e. a transmasculine student experiencing rib pain after wearing a chest binder incorrectly, or a student who was injured from transphobic harassment) often avoid going to nurses entirely because they cannot explain why they’re hurt without outing themselves to potentially unsupportive or even hostile adults. Even injuries and illnesses unrelated to transphobia often go untreated for hours or even days, as students consider avoiding the psychological pain of being misgendered to be more important than their physical health. 

Additionally, many transgender students, in our experience, feel unable to reach out to school counselors and school provided mental health resources, because of a lack of awareness of the specific risks and challenges faced by transgender students. 

School counselors are unavoidably mandated reporters, who are required to report certain dangers to child protective services. But on top of the legal mandate, counselors and mental health support staff are often quick to call home about problematic behavior or welfare concerns. While this seems at first like a reasonable and sometimes unavoidable policy, calling home about a transgender student can significantly decrease their wellbeing. In a world where 73 percent of transgender adolescents report psychological abuse and 39 percent reported physical abuse from parents or guardians, school staff who reach out to parents or guardians often put transgender students in harm’s way (according to a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics). While counselors are mandated to report risks to students physical safety and any concerns surrounding abuse or neglect, highschool students are otherwise legally entitled to confidentiality when disclosing mental health concerns. But, in the experience of many transgender and queer LM students, counselors are often quick to call home about any mental health concerns. When counselors do not consider the risks that a transgender student’s home life may pose, they can contribute to harm that is already occurring by outing students or prompting punitive measures from parents and guardians. While counselors may be unaware of this harm, students certainly are not, with many avoiding bringing concerns to school counselors and psychologists due to a lack of confidentiality. 

We first ask that LMSD remedy these inequalities by ensuring school nurses are trained specifically in the WPATH standards of care and medical guidelines for the treatment of transgender patients. Additionally, we ask that LMSD school counselors and staff prioritize student safety and privacy by asking for a student’s wishes and consent before making phone calls home, unless when legally mandated. By doing so, counselors significantly lower the risk of incidentally endangering transgender students, and help to build trust between students and support staff. We also ask that counselors and staff make legal requirements clear to students seeking support, to allow students to make fully informed decisions about the healthcare they want to receive and help them know what to expect when seeking help. These reforms, along with others not outlined in this letter, could help bridge gaps between transgender and cisgender student wellbeing. 

LMSD admirably wants to create an accepting and welcoming environment for its transgender students. Unfortunately, no district is separate from the violence and discrimination that transgender youth face across the country. We call upon LMSD leaders and administrators to listen to the lived experiences of trans youth, and join us in creating safe and equitable school environments. 

Respectfully Signed, 

LM Queer, Trans, and Allied Students

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