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CMS, CPCC students lobby for transgender rights

A group of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students intends to make a public appeal to the school board Tuesday for changes in policy that would include allowing transgender students to use the restroom of their gender choice.

Also being sought: permission to go by names (and pronouns) that better correspond to their gender identity, and more sensitivity training for CMS staff on handling transgender issues.

Such issues have become challenging in local schools and colleges, as transgender students have become more vocal in seeking equitable treatment – a battle waged and won last year in the California public schools.

There, a state statute went into effect this year allowing K-12 students access to whichever gender restroom they identify with, as well as the right to chose whether to participate in boys’ or girls’ sports and other once gender-specific programs.

Charlotte’s transgender community plans to stage a rally in support of such rights at 5 p.m. Tuesday outside the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center. This follows a similar event held Friday at Central Piedmont Community College, where supporters rallied behind a transgender student who recently filed a harassment claim against the college.

CMS student Contessa Cuellar, 17, is among those who intend to speak during the public commentary session at the school board meeting. She challenged school leaders at the Northwest School of the Arts last month to use the gender name of her choosing.

She says that issue was settled before it reached a district level. However, she believes other students may not be so lucky.

“Other students are allowed to be called by their middle names and nicknames, but transgender students are not allowed to be called by their chosen names,” Cuellar said.

“Schools are supposed to be a place of safety. How are transgender students to feel safe and comfortable in a learning environment, if they are not acknowledged for who they are?”

Though students like Cuellar say they’d like to use the restroom of their gender choice, most have settled for using gender-neutral restrooms at schools. These are typically the same restrooms used by teachers and other school staff.

Jose Hernandez-Paris, CMS diversity director, says his office has dealt with an average of one transgender student issue a year over the past four years,suggesting problems are resolved at the school level. He credits that success largely to an anti-bullying policy adopted by the district in 2008.

As for the changestransgender students seek, he says one challenge is to a district policy that seeks to have parents sign off on a student’s name change.

It remains unclear how many transgender students are registered in CMS, but Hernandez-Paris is not surprised that more are speaking up for their rights.

“There’s a ... shift taking place,” he said. “Younger generations are ahead of the current generations when it comes to how they view themselves and how they view diversity. They are more comfortable talking about sexual orientation and gender issues.”

Among the “gaps” he said CMS may need to work on is more training for part-time staff and substitute teachers on how to interact with transgender students.

CPCC is also talking about additional training for some staffers, after an incident March 18 in which a transgender student claimed she was detained and questioned by campus security after leaving a women’s restroom. The student filed a harassment complaint and the issue has brought national attention from LGBT rights groups.

Jeff Lowrance, a spokesman for the college, said the issue is “new ground” for CPCC.

“We’re more willing than anyone to admit that we’re going to have to talk with community leaders and LGBT organizations so we can develop a better understanding of how to make sure things are fair,” he said.

One idea, he said, is the inclusion of more gender-neutral restrooms in new buildings slated for construction. Meanwhile, the school has started posting the locations of all gender neutral restrooms on its website.

More challenging, he said, is allowing transgender students to use the restroom of their gender choice on campus. That’s due largely to state laws that dictate separate facilities based on gender for institutions the size of a community college, he said.

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