Indiana Connections Academy faced a dilemma.
Around 2013, a growing number of transgender students at the K-12 school began telling staff they wanted to be recognized by a different name and gender than was listed on their birth certificates.
But Indiana Connections Academy is a full-time online charter. That means most of students’ interactions with teachers and classmates occur online, using technology platforms that display each child’s name and other information. The school couldn’t change what was displayed publicly without first wrestling with serious questions about student privacy, as well as changing what was stored in its back-end database, which at the time required students’ legal name and gender for state reporting purposes.
Finding a technical fix was just part of the ongoing challenge, according to Melissa Brown, Indiana Connections Academy’s longtime executive director. The school has also had to consider its legal obligations around serving transgender students, which have shifted over the past two presidential administrations. 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 last week’s 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 transgender-student 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 anti-LGBTQ. The measure prohibited the establishment of local anti-discrimination 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 bathroom access.
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. Then, last February, the administration of President Donald Trump rescinded the guidance.
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 management system.
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. 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 every day 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.
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.”
Checking Values at the ‘Virtual Door’
Instituting such changes hasn’t been easy.
There have been some “raised eyebrows” 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 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 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 alternative settings.”
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