A year and a half after David and Hannah Edwards had to withdraw their transgender daughter from Nova Classical Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the publicly financed charter school has settled their complaint, agreeing to pay $120,000 and finally implement policies that respect transgender students.
Though the Edwards no longer send their daughter to Nova, the settlement is still a victory for transgender kids like her. It outlines how the school will work with families to support each kid’s transition and will fully respect those identities, including full inclusion when it comes to names, pronouns, uniforms, activities, and access to facilities. Notably, the school also agreed that it will not adopt any “opt-out” option for families who have religious or conscience objections to its Gender Inclusion Policy.
The Edwards spent the better part of the 2015–2016 school year fighting with the school to implement basic inclusion for their daughter, who was undergoing a social transition. The school kept waffling, even when it came to simple requests like reading children’s books about gender nonconforming children. Instead, Nova capitulated to vocal conservative families who brought in state anti-LGBTQ groups to campaign against the family’s requests that the school recognize their daughter’s gender. The situation became untenable in late February when the school emailed the Edwards on a Friday night to tell them it was reneging on its plans to allow their daughter to fully transition at school the following Monday.
“They were saying that they needed to send a letter home to invite parents to opt out any time they talked about our child’s existence,” David told ThinkProgress by phone. “They couldn’t even talk about her identity without sending a letter home, and that kind of environment is just inherently unsafe.”
Both David and Hannah are teachers themselves, and Hannah explained that in the classroom, a teacher needs to be able to respond immediately when issues arise. “They were saying if an incident happened with our daughter,” she said, “before they read a book or did any education, they would have to send home an invite to opt out, which isn’t true and it isn’t safe.”
David notes that there’s already been a lot of “purposeful misinformation” about the settlement among conservatives. For example, the Heritage Foundation’s Kelsey Harkness claimed Wednesday that the settlement bans the school “from notifying parents such policies exist.” David clarified that the settlement states that the school will not draw “special attention” to such policies through an opt-out policy. “In Minnesota, parents have the right to opt out of any lesson or any kind of instruction for any reason. This just states that Nova isn’t going to treat their gender inclusion policy or any kind of inclusion different than they would anything else.”
Hannah offered the parallel that a school wouldn’t send an opt-out invitation before addressing a student’s racist remarks, so it doesn’t make sense for them to make an exception when it comes to protecting their daughter from harassment related to her gender identity in the same fashion. But Nova actually rejected that comparison; the Edwards shared an email from the school’s attorney arguing that gender identity issues were just too new. “Unlike race or disability, there is not a 200 or 20 year history of education and law and Nova believes it is critical to the success of its anti-discrimination and inclusion work to bring its community along,” the email read. The attorney did not explain how inviting families to opt out of that inclusion work would help bring them along.
“The further we get away from it, the better we feel,” Hannah said. And that has certainly been true for their daughter. At her public school, she has been able to be herself for the past year. “She could just exist and didn’t have to worry about it,” Hannah explained, noting that the change has been “very healing” and helped their child “build her confidence.”
Nevertheless, not all the harm has been resolved. In particular, she had learned from her negative experiences at Nova not to trust adults when she was being bullied or harmed by other students. “She learned that people don’t necessarily believe her.” Indeed, David added, “she thought people would treat her badly like they did before.”
The last week of the school year, however, their daughter’s class read I Am Jazz, a children’s book about the real-life transgender girl Jazz Jennings, and she felt comfortable coming out to her classmates. The teacher and principal helped lead discussions so that everyone could respect and understand her identity.
The Edwards are thrilled that St. Paul’s municipal laws and Minnesota’s state laws helped protect their daughter, and they’re dedicated to making sure other children enjoy the same protection. David helped work on the transgender “toolkit” that Minnesota is now distributing to the state’s schools, and they’ll continue to advocate for other families.
“Schools should be the place where those kids are getting what they need, even if the outside world doesn’t accept them.”