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The North Carolina agency that oversees educational policies in the Tar Heel State has announced that it will allow transgender students in public schools to have their preferred name listed on most of their school records.
Last Friday, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction informed school districts that it has updated its PowerSchool student information system — which all districts are required to use — to display a “preferred name” that will be used on most records.
The change will go into effect later this month, and instructors and administrators will be provided with a demonstration video detailing how to fill out needed information for transgender students.
Under the policy change, a student’s preferred name will be used on state reports student report cards, and teacher grade books. The student’s legal name, however, will continue to be listed on official state student transcripts, according to the The News & Observer.
LGBTQ advocates had lobbied for the change, saying that PowerSchool’s original design listed students by their legal name and assigned sex at birth, and thus potentially placed transgender students at risk of being “outed” when they couldn’t change their profile to reflect their preferred names and pronouns.
The problem initially emerged last year when public school students were engaging in remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with PowerSchool making their legal name and assigned sex at birth visible to other virtual learners.
In response, the Campaign for Southern Equality, an LGBTQ rights organization, sent a letter — signed by more than 300 educators, administrators, school counselors and social workers, parents, and students — to State Superintendent Mark Johnson asking him to change the settings for PowerSchool’s system.
The advocates asked that PowerSchool add separate fields for preferred name and gender that are separate from the “legal name” and “legal gender” fields in settings, and include a third nonbinary option, in addition to male and female, that could be entered into the “preferred gender” field. They noted that other states using PowerSchool were able to institute similar changes, without incident.
While PowerSchool will now list a preferred name on students’ records, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction did not make the recommended changes to gender fields, or offer a nonbinary gender option to students who identify as such.
Despite this, the Campaign for Southern Equality praised DPI’s announcement as a significant development, especially for the estimated 15,000 to 45,000 transgender students currently enrolled in public K-12 schools.
“The new update to North Carolina’s PowerSchool system is about extending respect to every student who uses a name different than their legal one — not just transgender students, but also students whose names are often mispronounced by English speakers, and who choose to use a different name at school, or even students who prefer to go by their middle name,” Craig White, the supportive schools coordinator at the Campaign for Southern Equality, said in a statement.
“It’s a particular relief for transgender students who have faced unique challenges with virtual learning through the COVID-19 pandemic: For the past year, the learning platforms that schools have used to navigate virtual learning have all relied on naming students with the legal name recorded in PowerSchool, and that’s often resulted in the misgendering or ‘deadnaming’ of transgender students,” White added. “The preferred name policy will go a long way toward creating a school climate that is welcoming and inclusive for all students.”
Social conservatives balked at the change, claiming that schools were usurping parental authority and changing students’ names and gender identities in violation of state law, which requires a person to obtain a court order before they can change the name on their birth certificate, and a court order and letter from a physician or licensed mental health therapist before changing the gender marker on state ID documents.
“It’s not up to the public school system to change a student’s name or his or her gender identity,” Jim Quick, a spokesman for the N.C. Values Coalition, said in a statement. “North Carolina law allows for changing birth certificates if a person has fully transitioned. That is the only circumstance under which the school system should be allowed to change a student’s name or designated sex. Public schools should not be used as a tool for social engineering.”
John Rustin, the president of the N.C. Family Policy Council, expressed concern about the “dramatic change” being embraced by DPI. He claimed in an interview with The News & Observer that many young people who experience gender dysphoria will ultimately choose to identify by, and conform to gender norms specific to, their biological sex.
“[This change] would enable students who are very impressionable, who are suffering from gender dysphoria to be able to make very important changes on their school records that will follow them for the rest of their life,” Rustin said.
He added that the public deserves to know more about the PowerSchool changes, such as what will happen if a parent disagrees with their child’s gender identity or objects to their use of a preferred name that doesn’t match their assigned sex at birth.
But LGBTQ advocates say the changes to PowerSchool are important because they send a signal to transgender students that they — and their right to privacy — are respected when they’re referred to by their preferred names and not misgendered.
That signal is particularly important when transgender youth see their identities under attack by proposed bills, introduced in more than two dozen states, seeking to restrict their access to health care or bar them from competing in athletics.
“At a time when so many state lawmakers are forcing through legislative attacks against transgender students, it’s reassuring to see North Carolina leaders taking action to protect and respect transgender students,” Allison Scott, the director of impact and innovation at the Campaign for Southern Equality, said in a statement.
“Five years ago, North Carolina became synonymous with anti-transgender discrimination as a result of the hostile passage of HB2 — but through steady organizing, the state has shown progress toward inclusion. Other states should reject these anti-transgender attacks and turn toward tangible actions like this to show transgender young people that their safety, privacy, and identity are valued.”
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