How Do Washington’s Public Schools Protect Students’ Gender Identities and Gender Expressions?

Every year on March 31, Transgender Day of Visibility is celebrated internationally. The day recognizes the contributions of people who identify as transgender or gender-expansive, while also calling attention to the discrimination they face.

Washington state’s Equal Educational Opportunities laws have protected students of all gender identities, gender expressions, and sexual orientations since 2010. Public schools have been required to have a nondiscrimination policy that includes gender identity and gender expression since 2014, and in 2019, the state legislature passed a law requiring school districts to adopt policies and procedures for gender-inclusive schools.

Though Washington has a history of protecting students of all gender identities and gender expressions, questions remain about gender-inclusive schools and the legal rights of students and their families. Below, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) responds to questions from our social media followers, as well as explains what’s in Washington state law and how it protects students who identify as transgender or gender-expansive from discrimination.

What are gender-inclusive schools?

Gender-inclusive schools — according to the policies and procedures developed by the Washington State School Directors’ Association (WSSDA) and required by state law — are schools that prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and gender expression; respect, affirm, and support all students’ gender identities; challenge gender stereotypes; and discuss natural human differences and variation without judgment.

In Washington’s public schools, students have the right to:

  • Be addressed by their requested name, pronouns (she/her, he/his, they/them, etc.), and gender designation
  • Express their gender at school within the constraints of any dress codes; school dress codes should be gender-neutral and should not restrict a student’s clothing choices based on gender
  • Use restrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity
  • Participate in physical education classes and athletics that correspond with their gender identity

Gender-inclusive schools benefit all students; help to equalize student experiences and outcomes; and prioritize student health, safety, and well-being. Research has shown that when schools do not intentionally create gender-inclusive learning environments, transgender students are more likely than their cisgender peers to experience discriminatory harassment and bullying at school, miss or refuse to attend school, exit school before graduating, become involved with the juvenile justice system, face serious psychological and physical distress, and experience homelessness.

What does a school do when a student identifies as transgender or gender-expansive?

According to the model transgender student policy and procedure developed by WSSDA, a designated school employee should offer to meet with a student who is transgender or gender-expansive, either upon the student’s enrollment or when there’s a change to an enrolled student’s gender identity or expression.

During that meeting, the designated school employee should:

  • Develop an understanding of the student’s individual needs with respect to their gender identity and gender expression
  • Develop a shared understanding of the student’s day-to-day routine at school to alleviate any apprehension the student may have about their attendance
  • Consult with the student about their preferences for family involvement, in advance of contacting the student’s parents or guardians
  • Consider whether safety concerns are present for the student
  • Privately ask the student how they would like to be addressed in class, in correspondence sent home, and in conferences with their parents or guardians

Students should co-develop shared expectations about their school experience. One way that schools can do this is by co-writing a gender support plan with a student. While not required, these plans can help ensure that the school and the student are on the same page about gender-related supports needed by the student at school.

What information about a student’s gender can a school share with their parents or guardians?

It depends. Federal and state privacy laws protect personally identifiable student information from unauthorized disclosure. The federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) gives parents and legal guardians the right to request their student’s education records, and if requested, the school district will provide those records to the parent or legal guardian. Education records can include grades, transcripts, class lists, student course schedules, health records, and student discipline files.

OSPI is not aware of any applicable federal or state law that requires a local education agency (LEA) to affirmatively disclose a student’s gender identity to their parents or legal guardians. LEAs should not disclose a student’s gender identity to others, including their parents or legal guardians, unless the student authorizes the disclosure or the disclosure is required by law, such as when a parent or legal guardian requests the student’s education record under FERPA.

The U.S. Department of Education provides additional information about student privacy, including information about FERPA.

Are schools legally allowed to help or force students to medically transition?

No. There is no federal or state law that legalizes any action by a school district, school, or school employee to help or force any student to medically transition. Students who identify as transgender or gender-expansive should decide and guide their own transition choices.

Students who identify as transgender or gender-expansive may wish to transition socially and/or medically. Social transition may include changes to a person’s name, pronouns, clothing, hairstyle, behavior, mannerisms, and choice of activities. Medical transition may include medications used for hormone therapy or gender affirming surgeries.

Transitioning either socially or medically is a personal decision, and will likely look different amongst individuals who identify as transgender or gender-expansive. In all cases, Washington’s public schools have a civil rights obligation to treat students consistently with their gender identity and gender expression at school.

Are classroom lessons on gender age-appropriate?

Yes. Starting this school year, all public schools must provide comprehensive sexual health education (CSHE) to all students consistent with the Health Education K–12 Learning Standards. Washington state law requires CSHE to be “medically accurate, age appropriate, and inclusive of all students” for students in grades 4–12. State law makes clear that the only CSHE requirement for students in kindergarten through third grade is instruction in Social Emotional Learning.

Related to gender, state learning goals for students in kindergarten, for example, indicate that students should be able to understand there are many ways to express gender. By the time they finish sixth grade, students should be able to understand the range of gender roles, identity, and expression across cultures.

Where can I find additional information?