Nichelle Rivers, assistant superintendent for human resources for Eastern Suffolk BOCES,...

Nichelle Rivers, assistant superintendent for human resources for Eastern Suffolk BOCES, poses in her Patchogue office on Jan. 8. Credit: Barry Sloan

Officials at Eastern Suffolk BOCES will host educators from across Long Island this week in one of the first regional training sessions on the state’s updated guidelines regarding transgender and gender-expansive students.

The guidance from the state Education Department, which instructs educators on how to handle student pronouns, restrooms and other issues, was issued in June. The guidance also is a reminder for schools to adhere to the state's Dignity for All Students Act and comply with other federal and state nondiscrimination laws and regulations, the Education Department said. 

The Long Island-based LGBT Network also plans to hold its first training for school officials on the guidelines, as well as other topics, during the network's annual youth conference at Suffolk County Community College in March.

The state's updated guidelines recommend that schools address students by their chosen names and pronouns without requiring parental consent. The guidance also said students are entitled to use the restroom that aligns with their gender identity, and instead of addressing students as “boys and girls,” it's recommended that educators refer to them as learners, scholars or field-specific names such as writers or scientists.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Officials at Eastern Suffolk BOCES will host educators from across Long Island this week in one of the first regional training sessions on the state’s upated guidelines regarding transgender and gender-expansive students.
  • The Long Island-based LGBT Network also plans to hold its first training for school officials on the guidelines, as well as other topics, during the network's annual youth conference at Suffolk County Community College in March.
  • The guidance from the state Department of Education, which instructs educators on how to handle student pronouns, restrooms and other issues, was issued in June.

“I'm a member of the LGBTQ community and I am an advocate for LGBTQ youth,” said Nichelle Rivers, assistant superintendent of human resources at Eastern Suffolk BOCES, who is leading the training. Soon after the state Education Department issued the guidance, BOCES officials sought to explain it to schools Islandwide.

“How can we as an agency help school districts … unpack this document?” Rivers added.

At Eastern Suffolk BOCES, 10 districts already have signed up for the Jan. 26 training at the Instructional Support Center in Holtsville, Rivers said. She did a similar presentation for the Patchogue-Medford school district in November.

“It was very well-received,” Patchogue-Medford Superintendent Donna Jones said. “Oftentimes teachers and administrators are not really sure how to deal with the laws and rules and how to really understand all these categories of LGBTQ. How do you unpack it and how can you be sensitive and how can you be supportive?”

Research has shown that transgender students often have higher truancy rates, and are more likely to drop out of school and experience adverse health consequences, including avoiding bathrooms altogether. They also have higher rates of suicide, Rivers said.

The training comes during a time when transgender issues in school have been at the center of controversies nationwide and on Long Island. Other states, such as Alabama, Virginia and Florida, have passed laws or issued guidance prohibiting schools from withholding information about a student's gender identity from parents.

In the Comsewogue school district in Port Jefferson Station, the parents of a fifth-grader filed a lawsuit against the district, accusing a teacher of encouraging their child, who is female, to use male pronouns and a male name without the parents' knowledge.

In Elwood, some from the school community signed an online petition to remove books, including “George,” a book about a young transgender student, from school libraries. And a 14-year-old from Medford was charged last December with threatening LGBTQ students at a high school in Holtsville.

Part of the training for school staff offered by the LGBT Network at the March conference will include how school systems deal with community backlash, said David Kilmnick, founder and president of the Hauppauge-based organization.

“There's a lot of pressure on school administrators and teachers,” Kilmnick said. “And you have people that are trying to tell our teachers how to teach and what to teach.”

Officials at the state Education Department said its Office of Student Support Services has been working with educators across the state to develop guidelines that meet the needs of students. Kilmnick said more could be done locally.

“If I were to give a grade for how things are going, I would give an incomplete right now,” Kilmnick said. “That means some schools are certainly doing more than others.”

Rivers said the session will include definitions of the terminology in the LGBTQ community as well as ask educators to assess their classroom and school environments. The training is expected to draw school leaders as well as social workers and other staff.

“By the end of the training, they are coming up with an action plan as to how they can be more inclusive and create safe environments for transgender and gender expansive students,” she said.

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