Philly’s coronavirus response

Philly students can now officially change their school district names, thrilling LGBTQ advocates

The move is an unexpected side effect of the switch to remote learning.

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Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
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Students in Philadelphia can now officially change their first names and pronouns in the school district system without parental consent, solving a longstanding hurdle for many queer teens.

While teachers will use alternate names if advised during roll call, the district has always maintained the legal monikers in its records. Before now, there’s been no clear way to change that, leading to the kind of misidentification that’s been shown to fuel depression and suicidal thoughts.

On Tuesday, in a move spurred by remote learning, school officials sent an email to principals informing them students can now make a system-wide name change.

“For transgender and gender nonconforming students, the challenge to participate in Google Classroom is real as their dead name appears on the screen for all to see and the student to feel the negative impact,” the district’s letter reads.

“All students, even those under 18, have the right to change their name in our district’s student information system, and thus in all of our systems that receive data from the SIS, without parental consent and without a court order.”

The issue became apparent in the online learning system adopted during quarantine. Even if a teacher is cooperative, the student’s dead name is still displayed constantly in the Google Classroom system — right next to a student’s face while they’re participating via video chat.

Maddie Luebbert,  a nonbinary teacher at Kensington Health Sciences Academy, spoke to a school board member and testified at the April 30 meeting about the issue. To their surprise, SDP officials made the change almost immediately.

“I have never seen an issue raised at a school board meeting and two weeks later, more or less, a solution to it coming from on high,” Luebbert said. “It was so surprising and uplifting to me, the immediate response and that the problem was taken seriously.”

Students can make the change in two different ways via Google Form.

If they’re not worried about their parents finding out, they can check a box to change their name across the entire system — meaning all report cards and official documents sent home will display it.

Or if they haven’t yet come out to their parents, students can check a box to make the change online in the SDP’s online learning system, where their parents are unlikely to see the update.

Next step: getting the word out

Across the country, queer youth are more than three times as likely to attempt suicide. In 2016, the School District of Philadelphia implemented a policy meant to protect transgender and gender-nonconforming students.

That mandate, referred to as Policy 252, is pretty comprehensive.

It defines common terms like cisgender, gender expression and social transition. It lays ground rules, such as allowing students to choose their uniform based on their identity. It advises teachers that they can’t reveal confidential information like a student’s gender or pronouns to their parents without consent.

For the most part, it follows national guidelines on how best to protect trans students. In place for nearly four years, it’s among the most progressive in the nation, Luebbert said — but it’s often gone unenforced.

Over the years, Luebbert has observed Philly public schools using different color graduation gowns for different genders — violating Policy 252’s rule not to segregate by gender. At the SDP headquarters on North Broad, they said there are no apparent gender-neutral bathrooms.

That’s why Tuesday’s implementation of an actionable name-change policy felt like such a big step — offering students a clear, concrete way to help themselves.

Luebbert has a lingering fear: that students won’t find out about this new policy, because school staff might not effectively disseminate the information to them.

“My major concern is for teachers to understand how to be affirming to queer kids,” Luebbert said. “I think it’s really about informing students of their rights and making sure they understand that a principal or teacher can’t take this away.”

Want some more? Explore other Philly’s coronavirus response stories.

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