Hiding Gender Identity Weakens Special Education Rights

Helping parents advocate for their children
Olesia Bilkei/iStock

Rules to protect transgender students limit student rights and weaken parental ability to participate in the special education process.

To make schools more welcoming to students who identify as transgender, a number of states and school districts prohibit school staff from disclosing a student’s chosen name or gender identity if a student indicates parents are not “supportive” of a change in gender identity. But these policies, while they ostensibly protect students from harassment or abuse, also constitute significant obstacles to parents’ ability to be involved in the educational process–particularly for students with disabilities.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees specific rights to parents of children with educational disabilities, ensuring their involvement with decisions about their children’s Individualized Educational Program (IEP) — eligibility for special education, testing accommodations, modified curriculum, or career planning. Parental participation is so fundamental that a student cannot be assessed for special education eligibility, or placed into special education, without parents’ written consent

To fulfill their role as advocates and decision-makers, parents need complete and accurate information. Interfering with a parent’s access to information — as schools may do when they withhold information about gender identity and related socio-emotional issues — has professional, ethical, and potential civil rights implications. When parents lack critical information about their child’s functioning, including changes in stress level, behavior, or gender identification, they are unable to make informed decisions. While this fact would be problematic for any child, it is particularly pertinent for students with disabilities whose civil rights are protected in part by their parents’ ability to access educational records and fully participate in decision-making. 

Should educators suspect that a student is in danger of abuse at home as a result of gender identity, or any other reason, they are legally and morally bound to report that fact to authorities. There are well-established educational and legal processes to guide schools in such situations, but concern about potential abuse is far different from a nebulous understanding that a student’s parents would not be “supportive” as articulated by the student. 

The decision to withhold information from parents and exclude parents from educational decision-making, based on an assumption by staff about their differing perspectives, is fraught and unique to this contentious and politicized issue. Schools don’t withhold information from parents who disagree with their children, or school staff, on any other issue, and schools rightly work hard to include families with cultural differences or diverse beliefs on all kinds of issues. Schools are also prohibited in most cases from intruding on families’ healthcare decision-making; an IEP team can’t recommend medication for a student with ADHD, for example, as such decisions are reserved for families, students, and health care providers to make together. 

Most school districts will require a parent’s note to excuse an absence, take a student on a field trip, or extend a homework deadline. Yet the same districts may rely solely on students’ assertions to exclude parents from fully informed participation in the educational process. When they do so for students with disabilities, schools jeopardize a fundamental civil right for the very students they claim to be protecting. If a child is the only member of the family with complete information about his or her own well-being and functioning, the process of parent involvement cannot work as envisioned in IDEA, and that child—even one who has deep-seated disagreements with his or her parents–has less effective advocacy and representation than the law intended.

No eleven-year-old, no matter how mature, should be expected to serve as his or her own decision-maker. This is true even when schools and families have differences of opinion about a student’s needs, ideal programming, mental health or medical care. Many students who identify as gender-diverse may, in fact, be at risk or need differentiated support. But effective services and support cannot be achieved at the expense of parents’ rightful role in education. Policies regarding disclosure of gender identity must ensure that parents’ rights remain front and center—not in opposition to students’ rights, but as a fundamental means of protecting them.

Patricia Rice Doran
Patricia Rice Doran is a special education professor at Towson University with expertise in cultural and language diversity and neurodevelopmental disorders. She lives with her family outside Baltimore, Maryland and writes here in a personal capacity; views are her own.