As Education World reported in our look back at the top education stories of 2016, one of the biggest stories happened in May when the U.S. Department of Education and Justice released a joint guidance advising the country’s school districts to let students use school facilities according to gender identity, not gender at birth.
The guidance created immediate backlash and revealed a nation divided; while some states had already been in the process of creating lenient policies inclusive of students regardless of their gender identity, other states had been in the process of doing the exact opposite. North Carolina, for example, had just signed into law a sweeping and controversial bathroom ban that prevented transgender state residents from using the bathroom of their preferred gender in all public facilities— including schools.
The joint guidance clarified the Department’s stance on the matter, detailing "what we've said repeatedly—that gender identity is protected under Title IX. Educators want to do the right thing for students, and many have reached out to us for guidance on how to follow the law. We must ensure that our young people know that whoever they are or wherever they come from, they have the opportunity to get a great education in an environment free from discrimination, harassment and violence," said Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr.
The guidance intended to end confusion by demanding all states immediately adhere to its stipulations or else suffer the loss of federal education funding.
Unfortunately, the confusion did not end there and instead more was arguably created. Almost immediately after the guidance was issued, nearly half of states united against the directive, suing the federal government for what they insisted was a deliberate act of overreach.
Several months later in August, a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a final blow to the validity of the guidance by ruling to put "on hold a groundbreaking court ruling requiring a Virginia school district to accommodate a transgender high school student's request to use the boys' bathroom," said Politico. The Supreme Court allowed the Virginia high school in question to continue denying preferred facility access to a transgender boy— until its justices can decide on the case for themselves this year.
According to USA Today, the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the case means 2017 could very well be the year that the rights of transgender students in U.S. schools are clarified once and for all.
"The case is likely to be heard by April and decided by late June," USA Today said, with hope that a ninth justice is appointed by the time the case is heard.
As it stands, here is what current research indicates about the life of an LGBT student enrolled in a traditional U.S. school.
Just last month, a report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) found that LGBT students, particularly those living in restrictive states like Alabama, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas and Utah, are victims to constant bullying and harassment that is likely to interfere with their academic lives.
"Many schools censor discussions about LGBT topics, even as LGBT people and issues have become increasingly visible in public life. Eight US states restrict discussions of LGBT topics in schools, and some school districts in other states impose their own restrictions. These laws and policies send a strong signal to students that being LGBT is abnormal or wrong,” HRW said.
In September, a report from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) issued a report that found that only one-fifth of students reported being exposed to an inclusive LGBT-curriculum. It also found that the majority of schools analyzed did not have bullying prevention policies that focused on the bullying of students based on gender identity preference.
These findings are significant because studies have found that students who are exposed to inclusive curricula are more likely to succeed.
In 2009, a National School Climate Survey from GLSEN found students are less likely to miss school and therefore more likely to succeed when attending a school supportive of their identities.
In other words, the pending Supreme Court decision will have a big effect not only on the social climate in the U.S., but also on the lives of the individual LGBT students living and attending U.S. schools.
Nicole Gorman, Senior Education World Contributor