Educator Resources Privacy Issues and Considerations
The degree to which a student’s gender status is public or private is the result of many factors, some out of the control of all involved. Regardless of how public information about the child's gender is, there will be implications for the school serving them.

Public or Private

How is a student (and, when appropriate, their caregivers) to decide whether to share information about the child’s gender with others in the school community? Why might a student choose one approach versus the other? What are the trade-offs.

Being Public

In some cases, the decision is not really a choice at all. Many young people come to understand their gender in the context of the communities in which they grew up. If a child that was assigned female at birth and who has been known as a girl for the first few years (or more) at school asserts their identity as a boy, this by definition is a public process. While the student still has a right to privacy in so far as not being the topic of others’ conversation, conjecture or rumors, it is nonetheless something that will be known to many in the community. This is one reason that a well-designed Gender Communication Plan can be a helpful tool to manage that process and communicate clearly expectations for what respecting that  student’s privacy looks like. 

There may be other reasons for a student to be public about their gender status. Being able to proudly communicate and live as one’s true sense of self can be an empowering experience. There is something to be said for fully asserting who we are to others. Certainly, being public about one’s gender means not having to worry about others “finding out,” which can be an immense burden for some youth and families.  It may be that certain circumstances have arisen that could compromise the student’s privacy, and collectively the student and adults supporting them may elect to get out in front of the situation and fully control the narrative. In cases where a student is conveying a nonbinary identity, it is also a public assertion by the fact that they are typically using pronouns or expressing their gender in a manner that is intentionally designed to get others to see them in their true identity.

Finally, one reason to be public about the student’s gender is frequently unrecognized: when managed effectively, students who communicate a change in gender status to their peers may find a level of support and allyship they would never have expected. Far from being the terrible experience they imagined, it can instead be a transformative one that they (and quite likely their peers) will never forget.

Maintaining Privacy

In situations where privacy is an option, there are many reasons for seeking to maintain it. For many students and their families, the goal is to simply be another kid on campus and not “that transgender student.” This aspect of who they are should not define how others see them. Another reason is simple modesty; their feeling may well be, “why should I be talking about my body when no one else has to?” Put simply, it is nobody else’s business! Others maintain privacy to avoid becoming stigmatized or targeted for mistreatment. Keeping one’s gender private also means not having to go through the experience of sharing incredibly private information with others.

With the decision to maintain privacy, various questions arise.

If no one knows, how will the child be kept safe should “something happen?” 

They may well recognize any risks associated with few if any adults on site knowing about the child’s gender, and accept them nonetheless. Ultimately, it must be the student’s (and when possible, the family’s) decision about whether, and if so when and to whom, they will reveal this personal information. Even with risks that privacy may entail, some students and their families believe it worthwhile to have a chance at a school experience that is not dominated by this single aspect of the child’s life.

Don’t staff have a right to know if they have a transgender student in their classroom?

When a student asserts a high degree of privacy about their gender, it may be that very few adults (the school’s leader, a counselor, or even someone at the district office) will be aware of the situation. For some educators, this can be uncomfortable. With the best of intentions, they will insist upon the importance of adults knowing about the child’s gender status, in order for them to better support the child. On the one hand, this makes sense; should any issues arise in which the child’s privacy is compromised or the student is being mistreated based on their gender, adults can potentially intercede on the student’s behalf. But as described above, other factors may outweigh this concern. Many would argue that regardless of any student’s gender, don’t these same responsibilities ensue?

What if the student’s privacy is compromised? 

As mentioned, maintaining privacy does bring with it the possibility of that privacy being compromised.  Even in circumstances where a student’s gender status appears to be completely private, with no imaginable way for others to “find out,” the school, family and student must still think about contingencies should that privacy be somehow compromised. In this day of social media and an ever-growing number of ways to delve into the pasts of others, there are many ways such circumstances could unfold. Hopefully there is a Gender Support Plan in place that has anticipated such situations. If not the student and the adult in their life may well want to gather and consider their options. Can the situation be resolved such that any information about the student isn’t spread? Does it make sense to consider some form of Gender Communication Plan? Once more, in schools that have proactively addressed meeting all students’ gender needs head on, there is usually no shortage of possible solutions.

Will our assertion of privacy imply secrecy or shame?

It is critical that the notion of not sharing information about one’s gender be framed and understood properly. Certainly, in some cases maintaining privacy is the result of either a caregiver’s fears of embarrassment or the student’s own sense of internalized transphobia. If such is suspected, it is important to raise the question, and if necessary, provide resources such as support groups or counseling that will allow them to explore these issues. But in many cases, the desire for privacy is borne of a strong desire to not be pigeon holed by others, or to simply navigate the world without gender being the singular driving force by which they are viewed by others. In many cases students are just tired of thinking and talking about their gender, and their right to determine their stance around privacy should be respected without judgment or assumption.

Student Information Systems

For students seeking to maintain their privacy, one of the significant challenges comes from the various student information systems that schools employ. Frequently driven by the student’s name and gender marker as reflected on a birth certificate, these systems are utilized across the site and between multiple bureaucracies and levels for conveying information and data. As a result, there are a great many ways in which a student’s gender status may inadvertently be revealed. General processes such as completing enrollment, taking attendance, assigning grades and communicating with the home can all easily compromise the student’s privacy. Other typical stumbling points include after-school programs, school photos and class pictures, substitute teachers, outside district personnel or professionals providing a service on campus, yearbooks, ID cards, posted lists, library cards, distribution of texts or other school supplies, and standardized tests. 

Too numerous to name, even in the most supportive of school settings, these bureaucratic functions can cause significant harm for a transgender student with literally the click of a computer key. A single instance of the child’s private information being unintentionally made public can have devastating consequences. The difficulty is compounded by unclear definitions of a “legal student record,” often defined legislatively. School officials and IT professionals are placed in very difficult positions as they seek to fulfill their mandated reporting responsibilities on the one hand, while simultaneously protecting the student’s privacy on the other. Fortunately, there is growing recognition of this challenge. Some SIS companies are providing options that allow greater flexibility in this area. There are also a growing number of best practices that serve as “work- arounds” when these technical solutions are not available. Click "Read More" below to see our article on best-practices for Student Information Systems.

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Privacy and Non-Affirming Caregivers 

One of the most delicate aspects of student privacy issues surface when there is a lack of caregiver support for the young person’s gender. It is not uncommon for students, especially those at the secondary level, to approach their schools and seek support around their gender at school without parental or caregiver knowledge. This can put educators in the difficult position of threading the needle between the student’s needs and safety on the one hand, and maintaining open communication with the home on the other.

Unfortunately, transgender youth often experience high levels of family rejection. A family’s lack of affirmation can have a detrimental effect on a young person’s short- and long-term mental health and well-being. Family rejection significantly increases the likelihood that a transgender student will engage in high-risk behaviors.

Click "Read More" below to learn about the importance of family acceptance in our article, "Supportive Parenting."

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The School's Role

In instances of family rejection, schools can play a critical role in alleviating the student's psychological distress. School may be the only place a transgender student feels safe enough to be themselves. As a result, a safe and supportive learning environment is just as important, if not more so, for transgender students who do not have supportive parents as it is for those who do. For these reasons, as difficult as it may be, schools must take very seriously the student’s assessment of their caregiver’s level of acceptance.

When seeking to meet the privacy requests of transgender students, it is essential to communicate to the student that there are certain tradeoffs to consider in light of their desire for privacy.  For instance, it will be difficult to change the student’s name and gender marker in the student information system. Doing so may result in parents becoming aware of the school’s support of the child’s privacy when they receive  a school communication with the changed name. In such an instance, it might work best to manually change attendance sheets to reflect the student’s chosen name, but not alter the entry in the district’s student information system so that any written communication with the parents uses the student’s name as reflected on the birth certificate. Through this process the student and school can collaborate to develop a plan that balances the student’s need to be affirmed at school and the reality that the student does not have that support at home. 

In cases with unsupportive parents, school officials should explicitly address the following basic topics and situations as part of the student’s gender support plan: 

  • The modifications/accommodations the student is seeking (i.e. use of chosen name and pronouns; use of gender-specific facilities); 
  • How to refer to the student when communicating with the student’s parent(s)/guardian(s); 
  • How to refer to the student when communicating with the student’s siblings; 
  • What information, if any, to share with the student’s teachers; 
  • How to address questions from peers (if student’s transgender status is not private); and 
  • Support services the school can provide to assist the student in coping with the lack of support at home. 

Addressing the student’s needs at school provides a great short-term solution; but where possible, the goal should be to support the student’s family in moving towards increased acceptance (or at least lower levels of rejection) of their child’s gender identity. The number one factor in a transgender student’s ultimate health and well-being is parental support. Thus, in consultation with the student, the school should seek opportunities to foster a better relationship between the student and their family. A parent’s initial negative reaction to their child exhibiting signs that they might be transgender is likely based on inaccurate or incomplete information about gender identity, or out of fear for what this will mean for their child’s future. Those reactions often come from a place of love and protection, and are not intended to harm their child (even though they do). 

Schools can assist the process of family acceptance in myriad ways -- arranging a safe space for the student to disclose their gender identity to their parents, providing counseling services for the whole family, or connecting the family to local resources or other parents of transgender or gender-expansive youth. As part of this effort, it is important to educate the student’s family about the serious consequences of refusing to affirm their child’s gender identity. Sharing the observations of school personnel that highlight the effect that rejection has had on the student may also help encourage parents to begin moving toward acceptance.