Education Week - November 15, 2017 - 11
DIGITAL DIRECTIONS > TRACKING NEWS AND IDEAS IN EDUCATIONAL TECHNOLOGY
Virtual Schools Navigate Legal, Privacy Issues for Transgender Students
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 1
istrations. And just as significantly,
Brown and her team were forced
to navigate a broader culture war
in which advocates of LGBT rights
have been pitted against some proponents of religious liberty.
The end result?
Indiana Connections Academy decided to not only change their software
systems to accommodate transgender
students' requests, but to develop new
training protocols for school staff and
a range of other policies and supports
for vulnerable students.
"We approached this from the
perspective that it isn't about anyone's particular belief system. It's
about serving kids where they are,"
Brown said in an interview. "My job
as an educator is to make sure that
all students are supported and feel
welcome in our school."
Requests From Families
Indiana Connections Academy currently serves about 5,000 students
from across the state. The school is
one of more than two-dozen full-time
online schools, many of them charters, operated by Connections Education, a division of the giant global
school corporation Pearson.
Brown and Tisha Green Rinker,
Connections Education's director of
counseling, talked about their experiences during a panel on "Protecting Transgender Student Rights"
at a recent conference of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, commonly known as
iNACOL. Education Week viewed a
video recording of the session provided by Connections staff.
The conference itself stood as an
example of the tensions that have
erupted across the country around
public schools and transgenderstudent issues. After originally
opting to hold the event in Charlotte, N.C., iNACOL organizers in
February moved the event to Orlando, Fla., citing North Carolina's
controversial H.B. 2, a state law
which the group described as antiLGBTQ. The measure prohibited
the establishment of local antidiscrimination ordinances and
restricted access to restrooms and
locker rooms in public buildings
(including public schools) based on
the biological sex listed on a person's birth certificate. State legislators eventually replaced the bill
with another measure restricting
school boards and other local public agencies from setting policies on
That dispute mirrors much of the
larger fight within the K-12 sector
around transgender students' rights.
In May of 2016, the administration
of former President Barack Obama
issued guidance requiring schools to
allow students to use the restrooms
and locker rooms that match their
gender identity, prompting cheers
from LGBTQ advocates and anger
(and lawsuits) from a number of
conservative state lawmakers. Last
February, the administration of
President Donald Trump rescinded
Even before such legislative and
legal battles found their way into the
headlines, however, some full-time
online schools, including Indiana
Connections Academy, recognized
they had a challenge on their hands.
Green Rinker, the counseling director, said in an interview that Connections noticed around 2013 that
roughly 60 students had requested to
use their chosen names and gender
identities in their school's learning
In response, Connections convened
a cross-departmental team to figure
out what to do.
The "nuts-and-bolts" technical
fix to the software proved to be
the easy part, Green Rinker said.
Brown, the executive director of
Indiana Connections Academy, said
that changing federal guidance on
such issues has impacted how her
school community feels, more than
the school's policies themselves.
"The truth is we started this prior
to any guidance," Brown said during
the panel at the iNACOL conference.
"The guidelines from the Obama
administration caused us, and [me]
as a gay person myself, to stand up
a little straighter, so to speak," she
said. "And when that was rolled
back by the Trump administration,
it caused a little bit of fear."
Differing Opinions, Beliefs
Instituting such changes hasn't
There have been some "raised eye-
conservatives vehemently reject. And
in states such as Texas, lawsuits challenging the Obama-era guidance on
transgender students have focused
on the idea that no student should
be forced to change clothes or share
a bathroom with a student whose biological sex was different at birth.
To deal with such differing opinions and beliefs, Brown said, her
school has asked staff to "check their
values at the virtual door."
"We liken [our approach] to a medical model," she said at iNACOL. "We
don't get to make any judgments about
anybody's life if they come in our door.
We want to serve them the same as if
they were in a medical crisis."
The Alliance Defending Freedom,
a nonprofit legal organization that
has helped spur lawsuits challenging the Obama administration's
We approached this from the perspective that it isn't about anyone's
particular belief system. It's about serving kids where they are.
My job as an educator is to make sure that all students are supported
and feel welcome in our school."
Executive Director, Indiana Connections Academy
Within a month, Connections' development team was able to separate how students' names and gender identities are communicated
publicly on the schools' technology platforms, versus how they
are stored and used for reporting
purposes. Now, she said, "teachers
and everyday staff don't even see
the backend piece," and instead are
provided only with students' chosen names and gender identities.
More complicated, Green Rinker
said, has been developing protocols
and training staff to respond to such
requests from students and families.
What if a student's parents didn't
know he or she identified as transgender? Given the emerging research
on transgender children's vulnerability to discrimination, bullying,
homelessness, poverty, and suicide,
how could counselors and teachers be
prepared to offer other support in an
appropriate and non-invasive way?
And what about the physical spaces
that full-time online students do end
up sharing, during events such as
field trips, proms, and state testing?
The responses to such questions
have varied across the online schools
that Connections Education operates.
In Indiana, in addition to the changes
in the software system, there is now
a robust training program, focused on
how staff can better understand and
respond to the needs of transgender
students. And at face-to-face events,
the school makes every effort to offer
students three types of bathrooms
(male, female, and "your choice"), as
well as the right to choose the facility
of their choice.
brows" among Indiana Connections
Academy staff, Brown said.
"There's a values piece to all this,
and there are people whose belief
systems don't necessarily agree with
certain lifestyles," she said. "I think
we've battled that."
For example, advocates for transgender students say schools should
respect the notion that individual
gender identity is "non-binary," a
belief that some social and religious
guidance on bathroom access at
brick-and-mortar schools, did not
respond to a request for comment
about how full-time online schools
are handling related issues.
Brown and Green Rinker said the
number of Connections students in
Indiana and across the country who
have asked to be identified by their
chosen name and gender has continued to grow, to about 100 new such
requests this school year.
Some of that is likely due to the
bullying and discrimination transgender students experience in traditional schools, they said. During
the conference panel, for example,
Scout Akamu, now an 18-year-old
senior at a brick-and-mortar high
school, described the bullying she
experienced in her traditional middle school, before deciding to attend
Indiana Connections Academy for
nearly a year.
"It was constant, everyday. It really took a toll on how I handled my
life," Akamu said of the harassment.
"When I was in Connections Academy, I didn't have to worry about
any of that at all."
The online setting can also give children and families more control over
how their identity is presented, Connections staff said, and eliminate some
of the day-to-day stresses that many
transgender students experience, such
as figuring out where to safely and
comfortably go to the bathroom.
Still, Brown said, Connections is
not actively targeting transgender
students with its recruitment efforts.
Overall, said Stephen Russell, a
professor of child development at the
University of Texas at Austin, it's a
delicate balancing act for the K-12
sector, especially given the academic
and other challenges that full-time
online schools have experienced.
"We need places for individual
students to sustain their education
and be safe," Russell said. "We also
need to continue to work to make
all schools safe and supportive
schools for all students, and not
allow the conversation to fall back
on the idea that students who don't
fit in, have a hard time, or are bullied should find their education in
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EDUCATION WEEK | November 15, 2017 | www.edweek.org | 11
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Education Week - November 15, 2017
Education Week - November 15, 2017
E-Schools Adapting to Transgender Students’ Needs
In Florida, Laissez-Faire Approach to Monitoring Private School Vouchers
New Survey Details Effect of Inclusion on Teaching Time
Are States Changing Course On Teacher Evaluation?
News in Brief
Teaching Parents the Right ‘Questions to Ask’ in Schools
Rising Food Allergies A Challenge for Schools
GreatSchools Expands Its Ratings on Schools
Study: Do Parents Need a Reason To Go School Shopping?
SNAPSHOT: Single-Gender Education
New Mexico Offers Teachers A Seat at Policymaking Table
Repercussions for K-12 From Democratic Election Gains
GOP Tax Plans Could Affect K-12 Aid, Teachers’ Pocketbooks
A One-Year Scorecard for Trump On K-12 Campaign-Trail Promises
A Primer on the Teacher Tax Break
Emily Phillips Galloway, Paola Uccelli & Christina Dobbs: The Power of Precise Language
Adam Urbanski, Tom Alves & Ellen Bernstein: Without Teacher Input, Ed. Reform Is Doomed to Fail
William Sterrett: Time Is a Principal’s Most Limited Resource
TopSchoolJobs Recruitment Marketplace
Elaine Weiss & Christopher T. Cross: Education’s Golden Rule
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - Are States Changing Course On Teacher Evaluation?
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - Cover2
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - 3
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - Report Roundup
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - 5
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - Teaching Parents the Right ‘Questions to Ask’ in Schools
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - Rising Food Allergies A Challenge for Schools
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - GreatSchools Expands Its Ratings on Schools
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - Study: Do Parents Need a Reason To Go School Shopping?
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - SNAPSHOT: Single-Gender Education
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - 11
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - 12
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - 13
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - 14
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - 15
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - 16
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - New Mexico Offers Teachers A Seat at Policymaking Table
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - 18
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - GOP Tax Plans Could Affect K-12 Aid, Teachers’ Pocketbooks
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - A One-Year Scorecard for Trump On K-12 Campaign-Trail Promises
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - A Primer on the Teacher Tax Break
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - Adam Urbanski, Tom Alves & Ellen Bernstein: Without Teacher Input, Ed. Reform Is Doomed to Fail
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - William Sterrett: Time Is a Principal’s Most Limited Resource
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - Readers React
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - 25
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - TopSchoolJobs Recruitment Marketplace
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - Cover3
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - Elaine Weiss & Christopher T. Cross: Education’s Golden Rule