Education researcher partners with PDE to support rights of transgender students
Maria Lewis is working collaboratively with the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Office for Safe Schools on issues of how to better accommodate transgender youth within the state’s school districts, issues that Lewis believes can be solved not only through research but by revisiting the purpose of an educator.
More specifically, she said, reflecting upon the commitment to provide a safe environment that fosters the emotional and intellectual growth of all students.
Research interests by Lewis, an assistant professor of education in Penn State’s College of Education, have fallen under the umbrella of equity and diversity. By combining her doctoral degree in educational leadership and policy analysis with her juris doctorate, she uses the law to examine policies and practices in school districts to determine whether they hinder or promote equity in the educational context.
“As someone whose work is really about diversity and equity and social justice, I’m really interested in the ways educational leaders overcome some of the resistance they’re facing in trying to promote inclusion for LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) students and transgender students particularly,’’ Lewis said.
In response to a number of federal civil rights complaints and inquiries from school districts nationally, the United States Department of Education and the Department of Justice recently issued a Dear Colleague Letter on transgender students. The guidance identifies school districts’ obligations under Title IX.
An accompanying document provides examples of best practices of school districts across the country. “Shortly thereafter,’’ Lewis said, “a lawsuit was filed in which a number of states are making the claim that they don’t have an obligation to accommodate transgender students.”
Conversely, in April, a federal court of appeals ruled in favor of a transgender student and granted deference to the U.S. Department of Education’s interpretation of Title IX.
“It’s very confusing if you’re in a school district and you’re not sure how to proceed,’’ Lewis said. “The federal government is saying that I have to do this but then there are these lawsuits going on. I’m currently conducting legal research and closely tracking the status of the law as a way to inform and empower leaders to promote LGBT inclusion in their own settings.’’
Lewis said she’s aware people are often times driven by what the law requires but argues that shouldn’t always be the case.
“In the face of legal uncertainty, we should think about what’s right in our hearts and do the right thing,’’ she said. “The law answers the questions about what you have to do and about what you can do; the harder question to answer is ‘should you?’ This question is best answered through an examination of ethics.”
Lewis said state agencies are receiving inquiries from school districts about what to do and how to approach the topic. “In response to those inquiries, they’d like someone school districts can reach out to and talk to, so I would be working with those school districts and simultaneously conducting related research,’’ she said.
The collaboration with the state’s Department of Education (PDE) will allow her to provide technical assistance, research, presentations and resources to support school districts’ efforts to ensure LGBT inclusion.
"In the face of legal uncertainty, we should think about what’s right in our hearts and do the right thing. The law answers the questions about what you have to do and about what you can do; the harder question to answer is ‘should you?’ This question is best answered through an examination of ethics."
— Maria Lewis, assistant professor of education
Many organizations and researchers, both nationally and locally, are doing important work in this area. She said that her work will include helping to connect school districts with relevant resources related to LGBT issues, providing research and support to PDE, working collaboratively with the Office for Safe Schools to address the intersection of bullying and harassment and collecting data in the field.
“I hope to collect data in the field for my own research and translate those findings into a meaningful guidance for school districts to promote LGBT inclusion,’’ she said. “What are the lessons learned from the field? What’s effective? What resistance are school districts still facing? How are school district leaders overcoming resistance?’’
She said many school districts nationally already have been addressing transgender students’ issues and accommodations in their everyday work but sometimes without an official policy in place.
“Given kind of all the attention now it’s becoming very politicized and it’s a little bit more complicated,’’ Lewis said. “Many schools were providing individualized accommodations for students all the time. School districts are looking for resources and that’s one of the things I’ll be doing with the state.’’
Some states have issued voluntary guidance, some states have set out mandatory requirements and other states are waiting for the courts to weigh in before taking a formal position. Given the legal uncertainty, school districts are seeking guidance.
“It’s important to us as researchers to be responsive to the needs of the field,’’ Lewis said. “It’s an area of need in school districts and it’s something I deeply care about and am passionate about.
“I’m just letting the needs dictate the direction my work goes in, which I think is really wonderful, and I’m happy to be part of it. It’s based on needs in the field and that’s the most rewarding thing as a researcher, that what you’re doing is meaningful to people in the field.
“Seeing that bridging of the gap between research and practice is extremely important. For me this experience does exactly that and I’m really proud to be a part of it.’’
“When you take a step back and you think about what are we really here to do as school districts, we’re here to provide an education for kids in a safe environment. When you think about it that way and remove the politics and everything else that has become part of it, you want kids to feel safe and secure at school and you want kids to feel included and not isolated … that they can be themselves.”
By Jim Carlson (August 2016)