During the fall semester, 156 Montgomery County Public Schools students changed their names or pronouns by using a form that has been available through the school system since 2019, according to recent MCPS data obtained by MoCo360.
The students joined 382 others who have filled out the Supporting Student Gender Identity form since its creation in 2019, according to data from the MCPS Office of Student Welfare and Compliance. The 538 students make up .33% of the district’s 160,554 student population.
The intake form, Form 560-80, is designed to be the catch-all method for transgender and gender-nonconforming students to change their preferred name or pronouns within MCPS, according to several students who have utilized it. Students in any grade level can fill out the two-page form with their counselor, and the information is then used to update their data in the school system.
Cedar Dwyer, president of MoCo Pride Youth and a junior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, said he filled out the form to change his name during his freshman year. He said it’s greatly improved his peace of mind on campus to know that teachers won’t use his former name, an act known as deadnaming that can be harmful to transgender people.
“I’m very openly trans in my school,” he said. “To be able to go about my day knowing my teachers — even if they’re not the most accepting — don’t have access to information with my deadname has made me feel a lot more comfortable.”
The intake process was first designed in 2019 by Greg Edmundson, MCPS director of student welfare and compliance, in collaboration with community partners including MoCo Pride Youth and the local chapter of PFLAG, a nonprofit that works to unite LGBTQ+ allies. Data from Edmundson’s office shows that 35 students submitted the form when it first became available in the 2019-2020 school year and 108 in the following year.
During the 2021-2022 school year, 239 students submitted the form. It can be filled out at any point in the year, but Edmundson said the majority of submissions occur at the beginning of each semester.
Before the start of this school year, the form was updated to include a chart delineating where a students’ legal name, given name and gender marker may appear on various school forms. Edmundson said the chart was added to help avoid confusion about where state and federal guidelines mandate a legal name to appear on school documents, such as diplomas.
Not everyone is pleased that students can fill out the MCPS gender identity support form, and some parents have even challenged its legality.
In late 2020, two Montgomery County families filed a lawsuit against the school district alleging that its policy violates the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
In the suit, parents contended for a right to have unfettered access to the gender identity support form as an education record. In response, MCPS argued that it was not legally required to disclose information that “could put a student in danger,” according to court records.
A federal judge dismissed the suit in August 2022, saying the school district’s guidelines “carefully balance the interests of both the parents and students, encouraging parental input when the student consents, but avoiding it when the student expresses concern that parents would not be supportive, or that disclosing their gender identity to their parents may put them in harm’s way.”
Jax Kobey, a junior at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, says they changed their name during freshman year to better reflect their nonbinary identity.
“Some of my teachers had difficulty adjusting to my chosen name, and it was definitely helpful to have that form filled out,” they said.
They said they “would have been more nervous” filling out the form had they not felt supported at home.
Parent permission is not required to complete the form. Given that the process remains confidential between the student and their counselor, Edmundson said he understands why some parents have voiced complaints but hopes they see the necessity of the procedure.
“We’re not trying to keep anybody in the dark. We’re trying to make sure our students are supported,” he said, citing statistics on the disproportionately high rate of suicide among LGBTQ+ students.
A 2018 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that when transgender youths feel safe using their chosen name at school, work and at home, their risk of depression and suicide drops.
Edmundson’s office has received feedback from several parents who were unhappy to find out about their child’s new name after it had been changed in the school system. In those scenarios, Edmundson said someone from his office will have a conversation with the parent to help them understand why permission for completing the form isn’t required, in the hopes of moving toward shared support for the student.
“It’s not every situation where parents are going to be open and accepting,” he said. “But at the school level, there’s a level of respect and understanding for our students, and we want parents to be a part of that.”
He described a “level of commitment” that students exhibit by taking the time to seek out their counselor and fill out the form. “It’s really important that the process is taken seriously,” he said.
Ease of access
While some students say most of their LGBTQ+ peers know how to access the form — available online or through counselor’s offices — others say they have friends who still don’t know it exists.
Wootton junior and MoCo Pride Youth co-director Gretchen Gilmore has largely led efforts to raise awareness about the form. Gilmore co-led a virtual parent academy workshop in early November to help familiarize caregivers with the form and its importance, but said it is “still not as well-known as it should be.”
“Lots of students who want to socially transition don’t know exactly how to go about it, especially at a younger age,” she said.
Data shared during the workshop showed that from the time Form 560-80 became available in 2019 up to the night of the workshop, 41 out of 423 submissions had come from students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
Some transgender students say that before the form became available, they would be deadnamed by substitute teachers who didn’t know their chosen name and were only provided the official class roster, which at the time only used legal names.
Melissa Regan is a clinical social worker and parent of a nonbinary student who graduated from MCPS in 2020. Before guidelines were updated, she said her child would start every school year by sending an email to all their teachers along the lines of: “Hi! You’re going to see me on your class list as another name, but this is the name I use, and these are my pronouns.”
For the most part, she said teachers did a good job of respecting her child’s wishes, but when substitutes came in and called the name on the system-generated class roster, things got awkward.
“The other students didn’t even know my child was transgender and had a different name. So when the sub would deadname them during roll, all their classmates would look around like, ‘Who’s that?’”
The new process for updating a student’s chosen name in the school system eliminates uncomfortable situations like her child experienced, she said.
A visible impact
Gwendolyn Filipiak, a teacher at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, said for transgender and gender-nonconforming students, the opportunity to safely exist as their authentic selves at school has a direct impact not just on well-being but on academic performance and engagement as well.
“When they have opportunities to be recognized as their authentic self and have their internal world align with their external world, their attendance improves,” she said. “I’ve seen that happen very closely. All the things we want for our students — better grades, more engagement, better attendance — all start to improve when they have that sense of value.”
Northwood High School junior Leo Brooks said submitting the support form to his counselor at the Silver Spring school felt like “a free pass to be myself.”
When asked how he would respond to parents who might feel upset by their student’s choice to change their name or pronouns, Brooks said parents should realize that the decision is not made lightly.
“A lot of people don’t trust their kids or teens to make decisions like this for themselves,” he said. “I honestly think if someone is changing their name, it’s something very well thought through and premeditated. The average teenager is not going to change their name just for fun.”
Brooks said at first his parents struggled to embrace his new name, but a shift in their perspective made acceptance a lot easier.
“My parents realized that my identity doesn’t affect them and isn’t attached to theirs,” he said. “A lot of parents attach their identities and live vicariously through their kids. Once you let go of that ego around your kids and who they are, I think it makes it a lot easier to accept your trans child like mine did.”
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