Civil rights laws prohibit discrimination and discriminatory harassment on the basis of gender expression and gender identity in Washington public schools. All students have the right to be treated consistent with their gender identity at school.
Relevant Laws & Guidance
- Chapter 28A.642 RCW
- Chapter 49.60 RCW (Washington Law Against Discrimination)
- OSPI Civil Rights Guidelines: Gender Identity and Gender Expression (Note: These guidelines are currently under revision)
- Bulletin No. 089-19: New Requirements Related to Nondiscrimination Policies and Procedures (12/12/2019)
Nondiscrimination Based on Gender Identity & Gender Expression in Washington Schools
Gender identity and gender expression are protected classes under Washington state law, which means schools cannot discriminate against students based on their gender identity or gender expression. All students have the right to be treated consistently with their gender identity at school and express their gender at school, including in the following areas.
- Safe & Nondiscriminatory Environment, Free From Harassment
Washington public schools have a responsibility to provide a safe and nondiscriminatory environment for all students, including transgender and gender-expansive students. Bullying or harassment that targets a student based on their gender identity or gender expression is discriminatory harassment. Schools must take steps to protect students from discriminatory harassment and must investigate possible harassment as soon as they know or reasonably should know about it, even if a parent or student does not file a formal complaint.
- Names, Pronouns, & Gender Designations
In Washington public schools, students have the right to be addressed by their requested name, pronoun (e.g., he/him, she/her, they/them, etc.), and gender designation.
Public School Records. All school records should use the student's requested name, pronoun, and gender designation unless there is a legal reason not to do so.
- Non-official Records should refer to a student by their requested name and gender. For example, school identification cards, athletic rosters, playbills, attendance lists, etc. should display the student's requested name, pronoun, and gender designation.
- Official Records. Certain education records, such as the transcript, may still require a school to use a student's legal name. Schools should change the student's name on a transcript if the student provides documentation of a legal name change. Schools should change a student's gender designation if a parent or student requests the change (i.e., no proof of legal change required).
Name & Gender Designation Changes. A legal name or gender designation change is not required in order for public schools to use the student's requested name, pronoun, and gender designation during class, on seating charts, during roll call, on tests and assignments, and on other public school records. Of course, if the student has undergone a legal name or gender designation change, the public school should use the new legal name and gender designation from that point forward (i.e., the change is not retroactive).
- Dress Codes & Gender Expression
Clothing and hairstyle are two ways in which students often express gender. Students have the right to express their gender at school, within the constraints of the school's dress code, without discrimination or harassment. School dress codes should be gender-neutral and should not restrict a student's clothing choices on the basis of gender.
- Sex-Segregated Facilities & Activities
Restrooms. Public schools must allow students to use the restroom that corresponds to their gender identity. Any student—transgender or not—who requests greater privacy for any reason should be given access to an alternative restroom, such as a staff restroom or health office restroom, if one is available. However, school staff cannot require a student to use an alternative restroom because of their transgender or gender diverse status.
Locker Rooms. Public schools should provide access to the locker room that corresponds to a student's gender identity. Public schools may provide a separate changing schedule or use of a private area, such as a nearby restroom stall with a door or an area separated by a curtain, to any student-transgender or not-who voluntarily seek additional privacy.
Sports & Physical Education Classes. Public schools must allow all students to participate in physical education and athletics that correspond to their gender identity. Eligibility for interscholastic athletics is determined by the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA).
- Confidential Educational & Health Information
Public school staff can only share confidential educational and health information if they are permitted by law. In general, school staff should not share a student's transgender or gender-diverse status, legal name, or sex assigned at birth with others, who could include other students, school staff, and non-school staff.
Administrative Requirements for School Districts
During the 2019 regular session, the Legislature passed Senate Bill (SB) 5689 concerning harassment, intimidation, bullying (HIB), and discrimination in public schools. Sections of this bill include new requirements for school districts regarding nondiscrimination policies and procedures, notifications, and designated coordinators. The following is a summary of the new requirements related to nondiscrimination, which are now codified in RCW 28A.642.080.
- Adopt Gender-Inclusive Schools Policy and Procedure
By January 31, 2020, each school district must adopt or amend, if necessary, policies and procedures that, at a minimum, incorporate all the elements of the Washington State School Directors’ Association (WSSDA) model “Gender-Inclusive Schools” policy and procedure, 3211/3211P. This policy and procedure are updated versions of WSSDA’s formerly titled “Transgender Students” and are available at no cost on WSSDA’s Featured Policies webpage.
- Provide Annual Notification of Gender-Inclusive Schools Policy and Procedure.
School districts must share this policy and procedure with parents or guardians, students, volunteers, and school employees in accordance with rules adopted by OSPI. To do so, OSPI recommends school districts use the same method used to provide annual notice of the district’s discrimination complaint procedure, as outlined in WAC 392-190-060(2).
- Designate Gender-Inclusive Schools Coordinator.
School districts must also designate one person in the district as the primary contact regarding the Gender-Inclusive Schools policy. This primary contact must:
- Ensure the implementation of the policy and procedure;
- Receive copies of all formal and informal complaints;
- Communicate with employees responsible for monitoring compliance; and
- Serve as the primacy contact between the school district, the Office of Education Ombuds, and OSPI.
The school district’s designated civil rights compliance coordinator or HIB compliance officer may also serve as this primary contact. The primary contact must attend at least one OSPI training regarding HIB and gender-inclusive schools. For information on HIB training, contact OSPI's Safety Center or Mike Donlin, the Safety Center Program Supervisor.
Gender-Inclusive Schools Coordinator Training Materials
OSPI recommends the designated coordinator review the following resources and information and contact OSPI's Equity and Civil Rights Office for technical assistance if any questions or concerns arise.
Creating Gender-Inclusive Schools in Washington Webinar
School should be a safe, welcoming environment for every student—whether transgender, cisgender, or nonbinary. In Washington state, discrimination based on gender identity and expression is explicitly prohibited. The Creating Gender-Inclusive Schools in WA webinar, provides an overview of the legal protections in place for Washington K-12 students, defines key (and constantly evolving) terms, shares best practices, and answers the most frequently asked questions that we receive from schools about how to create and maintain a gender-inclusive learning environment for all students.
- Creating Gender-Inclusive Schools webinar recording
- OSPI Creating Gender-Inclusive Schools webinar handout
The designated coordinator must attend at least one OSPI training regarding HIB and gender-inclusive schools, as required in RCW 28A.642.080. For information on HIB training, contact OSPI's Safety Center.
- Understand Washington’s Protections for Transgender and Gender-Expansive Students
Washington’s policies protecting students from discrimination on the basis of gender identity and gender expression are outlined in OSPI Civil Rights Guidelines: Gender Identity and Gender Expression (Note: These guidelines are currently under revision).
Coordinators should also be familiar with the requirements of SB 5689 (2019), codified at RCW 28A.642.080, which includes administrative requirements for school districts regarding gender-inclusive schools policies and procedures, notifications, and designated coordinators. Review OSPI’s Bulletin No. 089-19: New Requirements Related to Nondiscrimination Policies and Procedures (12/12/2019), which outline the requirements.
In addition to protections specific to gender identity and gender expression, coordinators should also be familiar with how to identify and address discriminatory harassment and how to respond to complaints of discrimination.
- Be Familiar With Key Terms Relating to Gender Identity and Gender Expression
Assigned sex: The sex a person was given at birth, usually based on anatomy. In Washington, a person’s assigned sex may be recorded as female, male, or X.
Gender expression: The external ways in which a person expresses their gender identity to the world, such as through their behavior, emotions, mannerisms, style of dress, hairstyle, interests, or choice of toys, colors, or activities.
Gender identity: A person’s innate sense of their own gender—whether female, male, both, nonbinary, or other—regardless of their assigned sex at birth. The most commonly used terms to describe gender identity include:
Cisgender: An adjective describing a person whose assigned sex aligns with their gender identity, e.g., a person who was assigned male at birth and who identifies as male. Most people are cisgender.
Transgender: An adjective describing a person whose assigned sex differs from their gender identity, e.g., a person who was assigned male at birth and who identifies as female. It is estimated that about 1% of people identify as transgender.
Nonbinary: An adjective describing a person whose gender identity does not fall into one of the two traditional (binary) categories—male or female—and is instead something other than male or female, blends elements of being male or female, or is neither entirely male nor entirely female.
*Examples of correct usage for the above adjectives: A cisgender man; a transgender woman, a nonbinary person, etc.
Sexual orientation: A collection of terms used to describe to whom one is emotionally, physically, and/or romantically attracted. Like cisgender people, transgender and nonbinary people use different sexual orientation descriptors, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, queer, etc. Note: Gender identity terms (e.g., cisgender, transgender, nonbinary) are not sexual orientation descriptors.
Gender-inclusive school: A safe, civil, respectful learning environment free from discrimination based on gender identity and expression.
- Why Creating Gender-Inclusive Schools is Important
Gender-inclusive schools benefit all students. Transgender students are not the only students affected by gender and gender stereotypes at school. When schools reinforce traditional notions of gender and gender stereotypes, all students—whether transgender, cisgender, or nonbinary—are prevented from realizing their full potential. On the other hand, when schools affirmatively support gender diversity, all students are empowered to live more authentically and to take advantage of different opportunities that might not have otherwise been available.
Gender-inclusive schools help equalize outcomes. Research has shown that when public schools do not intentionally create gender-inclusive learning environments, student outcomes tend to diverge sharply, with transgender students faring much more poorly than their cisgender peers, both inside and outside of the classroom. For example, when compared to cisgender students, transgender students are exponentially more likely to:
- Experience harassment and bullying at school because of their gender identity or gender expression—according to one recent study, as many as 75% of transgender students reported having experienced harassment or bullying at school for these reasons;
- Miss school;
- Underperform educationally and fail to graduate;
- Be disciplined and funneled into the juvenile justice system;
- Face serious psychological and physical distress, such as suicidal thoughts and attempts; and
- Experience homelessness.
Gender-inclusive schools lessen the impact of familial rejection. Additionally, research and anecdotal evidence show that transgender youth often experience high levels of family rejection and a lack of support because they do not conform to stereotypes associated with their sex assigned at birth. Familial rejection and a lack of support are both linked to decreased short- and long-term mental and physical health and well-being for transgender students, such as increased levels of depression and a nearly four times greater likelihood of attempted suicide. When schools provide a gender-inclusive environment, however, the impact of family rejection can be lessened. Learn more about how schools can work to support and affirm transgender students and gain strategies for helping move families towards acceptance in Chapter 5 of the LINK-Schools in Transition guide.
- Focus on Student-Centered Planning and Communication
Planning with the Student. Working with the student to co-develop shared expectations about the various aspects of a transgender student’s school experience can be extremely helpful for all involved. These shared expectations can be documented in a gender support or transition plan, which can help guide deeper conversations about topics such as parent/guardian communication and involvement, restroom and locker room use, names and pronouns, and participation in other school and extracurricular activities.
- A sample Gender Support Plan and Gender Transition Plan can be found in the Schools in Transition: A Guide for Supporting Transgender Students in K-12 Schools. Although this resource was not developed by OSPI and was written to comport with federal law, not Washington law (which offers greater protections for transgender and gender-expansive students), it can still serve as a valuable reference for Washington educators, families, and students.
OSPI has also curated a number of other resources and guides for educators on how to facilitate conversations with students about gender identity. These resources and guides are available on OSPI’s Sexual Health Education webpage (scroll to “Support for LGBTQ Students”).
Communicating with families. Sometimes, transgender students may not want their families to know that they are transgender or that they use a different name, pronouns, and gender designation at school. Often, this is because they are concerned about a lack of familial acceptance and the resulting impact on their safety and wellbeing at home.
It can be a challenging situation for all involved when families and students are not on the same page about the student’s gender identity or transition. However, in Washington, the right to be treated consistent with one’s gender identity at school belongs to the student. In order to protect the student’s health, safety, and privacy, schools are strongly encouraged to ask the student which name, pronouns, and gender designation should be used when communicating with parents and guardians before such communications take place, in order avoid unintentionally outing the student at home.
- The Schools in Transition guide includes best practices and strategies for communicating with families and working with parents and guardians who may not be supportive
- Additional Resources and Support
- Schools in Transition: A Guide for Supporting Transgender Students in K-12 Schools
- HRC Welcoming Schools: Gender and LGBTQ-Inclusive Resources for Schools
- GLSEN: Educator Resources
- Gender Diversity: School Trainings
- U.S. Department of Education: Policies and Emerging Practices for Supporting Transgender Students
- Dear Colleague Letter: Transgender Students (2016) (Archived)