LGBTQ advocates are demanding that North Carolina introduce changes to an online virtual learning platform that they say, in its current form, potentially “outs” transgender students.
The system used by public schools classifies students according to their legally recognized name and designated sex at birth — which may conflict the name they regularly use in class and their gender identity.
North Carolina’s public schools use a version of the PowerSchool student information system for online or remote learning, and have utilized the platform to provide instruction while schools remain closed through May 15 due to concerns over the raging COVID-19 pandemic.
But the problem with the North Carolina version of PowerSchool is it requires students to register using their legal name and legally recognized gender.
In some cases, that means that transgender and nonbinary students who have been unable to have their identity documents or school records changed to reflect their gender identity and preferred name may be unintentionally outed.
On Thursday, the Campaign for Southern Equality sent a letter — signed by more than 300 educators, administrators, school counselors and social workers, parents, and students — to State Superintendent Mark Johnson urging him to tell his subordinates to change the settings for PowerSchool.
The changes they seek include adding separate fields for name and preferred gender that are separate from the “legal name” and “legal gender” fields — the latter two of which would not be shown publicly, as they are now — as well as a nonbinary option, in addition to male and female, when students fill out the preferred gender field.
The Campaign for Southern Equality notes that other states using PowerSchool have been able to implement such changes without incident.
CSE has been advocating for changes to North Carolina’s PowerSchool settings since 2018, but the lack of action on the state’s part has caused the controversy to come to a head as the schools shift over to virtual learning.
While they acknowledge that most instances of outing that occur via PowerSchool are not deliberate, advocates say that revealing student’s transgender identity, even unintentionally, violates their rights under the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act, as well as state and district policies intended to protect students’ privacy.
“For most transgender students, being confronted with one’s birth name (referred to commonly in the trans community as one’s ‘dead name’) can trigger feelings of anxiety and dysphoria. When the disclosure is made public, they may fear for their safety as well,” the letter to Johnson reads.
“Families and students have been forced to accept loss of privacy and other harms as students are confronted with their birth name, particularly in online testing and discussion forums. Many times their best coping strategy is to opt out, skipping the test or taking a zero grade for the online part of the course, rather than having their transgender status revealed,” the letter continues. “But now our time has run out.
“As North Carolina schools shift to at-home learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, all of the online learning platforms, chat rooms, discussion forums, and virtual testing sites are generating student usernames, visible to other students and faculty, based on the legal name in PowerSchool. Across the state, students are finding out that their classmate Janelle was once named James, that Aaron used to be Emily, that Latisha was Lavon. It is impossible to describe the social, emotional, and psychological harms that this mass violation of privacy may cause.”
A spokesman for the Department of Public Instruction told The News & Observer that the State Board of Education’s attorney was reviewing the request “for possible solutions that comply with state and federal law and that conform to the agency’s student data infrastructure capabilities.”
Craig White, the Supportive Schools Coordinator at the Campaign for Southern Equality, said the organization recognizes that North Carolina schools are facing many challenges right now, but that Johnson could easily fix this problem “with a five-minute phone call” by ordering the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction to change the PowerSchool settings.
“We urge the state to remedy this privacy and safety violation as soon as possible, as it’s making this already difficult time a heartbreakingly stressful one for the many transgender students across North Carolina,” White says. “We must do everything we can to ensure that every student feels safe and protected at school, whether they’re learning in person or in a virtual space.”
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