Is MDE failing to report maltreatment of trans students?
“…the public policy of this state is to protect children whose health or welfare may be jeopardized through physical abuse, neglect, or sexual abuse… Intervention and prevention efforts must address immediate concerns for child safety and the ongoing risk of abuse or neglect…” (MN Statute 626.556)
The Minnesota Department of Education's (MDE) School Safety and Technical Assistance Center (SSTAC) serves as a resource for schools and families to ensure all students have access to safe and welcoming school environments. SSTAC staff members respond to phone calls and emails by giving advice to schools on maintaining positive school climates.
With increasing frequency, SSTAC staff are also asked to provide guidance on supporting students who are transgender or gender diverse (TGD). SSTAC staff have done an excellent job of referring individual students, schools, and district employees to high-quality resources such as Schools in Transition, GLSEN’s model gender inclusion policy, and lesson plans and training from Welcoming Schools. Unfortunately, many TGD students face persistent hostility and dangerous learning environments despite their schools receiving guidance from the SSTAC. SSTAC staff are powerless to intervene in these cases even when they are made aware of prolonged discrimination. The only recourse for families and students in these situations is to file a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights or the federal Office of Civil Rights.
"Are SSTAC staff failing to fulfill their obligation to report neglect of TGD students to MDE’s student maltreatment program?"
The inability of the SSTAC and MDE to ensure compliance with the Safe and Supportive Schools Act needs to be addressed immediately. But when a student who is transgender makes the SSTAC aware of situations involving sustained patterns of discrimination and dangerously hostile school climates, a different and more pressing question is raised: Are SSTAC staff failing to fulfill their obligation to report neglect of TGD students to MDE’s student maltreatment program?
All SSTAC staff are mandated reporters through their positions at MDE. The definitions of neglect outlined in MN Statute 626.556, Subd. 2., especially clauses 2 and 9 (see graphic for further detail), may obligate the SSTAC staff members to report certain situations to MDE’s student maltreatment program within 24 hours.
MDE and the SSTAC have routinely advised schools that failure to provide access to facilities that align with a student’s gender identity, use a student’s pronouns or name, or inadequately address hostile school climates, is discrimination. Research shows that experiencing rejection and discrimination at school can cause lasting psychological and physical damage to students who are transgender and gender diverse.
When the SSTAC has comprehensive information about an unsafe school situation, and they can reasonably expect harm will occur to a student because of a school's action or inaction, shouldn't staff members be reporting these cases of neglect to MDE's student maltreatment division?
The following are examples of common TGD student situations that would trigger mandated reporting:
1. A TGD student is denied access to facilities corresponding to their gender identity.
2. A school environment is openly hostile towards a specific TGD student and has been for months without action.
3. A school refuses to prevent and correct persistent discrimination based on gender-identity such as intentional misgendering by students or staff, failure to intervene when a student’s identity is marginalized by the school community, or refusal to allow a student to dress according to their gender identity.
4. Multiple parents inform a classroom teacher that their children will not comply with a school’s gender inclusion policy and call out a specific TGD student in the teacher’s classroom.
5. A school views TGD students’ identities as “controversial” and prevents education and discussion that would correct an openly hostile school climate.
6. A school prevents a student from undergoing a social transition.
It may be that there is some grey area in the interpretation of this statute and how it relates to the SSTAC’s responsibilities when advising and consulting with schools. Ambiguity aside, is it fair to the employees of the SSTAC to ask that they do nothing when they learn of the suffering of a minor child in a public school? Shouldn’t MDE’s student maltreatment program be the ultimate authority on whether systemic neglect of TGD students is occurring?
The Minnesota Student Survey data provide evidence that MDE's support is insufficiently monitoring the learning environments that make TGD students 4 times more likely to feel unsafe at school than their cisgender classmates.
If you are concerned about how MDE is supporting TGD students, please reach out to the following staff members at MDE: