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Schools can help -- or hurt -- transgender children

ACR Health in Syracuse put on a special workshop for educators recently to explore ways schools can become more supportive of transgender students. The session also offered a firsthand look at the challenges these kids face.

Schools are often ground zero for transgender kids, says Terri Cook, co-author of the book “Allies and Angels” and parent of a transgender child.

“School can be a safe space for a student, or it can be a living hell,” said Cook.

She knows how it played out in her central New York family, as her son transitioned from female to male. First, she says she needed to understand herself what was happening.

“Somebody explained it to me once, when I was going through my learning phase, that kind of hit a light bulb for me. They said, ‘Terri, your child has a male brain inside a female body.’”

And from there, she realized how a supportive school atmosphere was so important for her child.

Cook shared her story at a workshop in Syracuse recently with educators from across central New York along with other parents of transgender children, like Karen Fuller of Syracuse, who says support from her child’s elementary school principal made all the difference.

“She was there to support my child and helped with letting all the other staff that needed to know, that would be working with him. Got his name changed on the class list, so when he started third grade he started as who he really is,” said Fuller.

But Cook admits not all schools are supportive. Often schools won’t use a new name if it’s not legal. And offering safe spaces for these kids can be key.

And then there’s the problem of bullying. Some reports show more than three-quarters of transgender kids get bullied, both physically and verbally. And Cook says even supportive schools can have a hard time dealing with that.

“So much involved, requires the student to come forward, and share what’s going on. Who did what, what happened. And the reality we found is that many children don’t feel safe doing that,” said Cook.

Safe spaces in a classroom, or a counselor or a nurse’s office helped her son when bullying and stress became too great for him. Fuller says oftentimes, these kids aren’t supported by their families, so that magnifies the responsibility of schools.

“School might be the only place where they might have a chance to meet someone who would be supportive of them,” she said. “So it’s very important, even if it’s a difficult or uncomfortable situation, to know that there’s somebody in that school, that’s willing to hear them, understand them, and support them.”

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.