ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Three hundred educators, administrators, parents and students in North Carolina submitted a letter to State Superintendent Mark Johnson urging him to direct the N.C. Department of Public Instruction to take action that would protect the privacy and safety of transgender students. In North Carolina, schools are required to use PowerSchool, a student information system, but the version that the state uses is set up in a way that leaves transgender young people vulnerable to having their gender identity revealed without their consent. The full letter can be read online.
The letter specifically asks that the state update PowerSchool to add “Legal Name” fields that are separate from the “Name” fields and for a “Legal Gender” field separate from the “Gender” field, which should include a “non-binary” option in addition to “male” and “female.” Other states that use PowerSchool have had their systems set up to protect the privacy of transgender students since 2015 or earlier.
Advocates including the Campaign for Southern Equality (CSE) have organized for this change for years – but the problem became especially urgent last month, as North Carolina schools shifted to at-home learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. All of the online learning platforms, chat rooms, discussion forums, and virtual testing sites that schools now rely on generate student usernames, visible to other students and faculty, based on their legal name in PowerSchool. If the legal name is different than the name the student uses on a daily basis, which is the case for many transgender students, the system may reveal their transgender identity without their consent. This is a violation of the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) as well as state and district privacy policies.
That privacy violation also threatens the safety of students, as transgender students are significantly more likely to experience bullying and harassment both online and when they go back to school. According to a 2017 GLSEN survey of LGBTQ students in North Carolina, 90 percent regularly hear anti-LGBTQ language in schools. Nearly 3 out 4 have experienced verbal harassment, 1 out of 3 have experienced physical harassment, and 14 percent have experienced a physical assault at school.
CSE Supportive Schools Coordinator Craig White stated: “We recognize that the Department and Superintendent Johnson are confronted with many crises right now, and this one, at least, can be resolved with a five-minute phone call: North Carolina simply must request the modified fields in our next system update. We urge the state to remedy this privacy and safety violation as soon as possible, as it’s making this already difficult time a heart-breakingly stressful one for the many transgender students across North Carolina. We must do everything we can to ensure that every student feels safe and protected at school, whether they’re learning in person or in a virtual space.”
Francine Delany New School for Children in Asheville Administrator Buffy Fowler added: “The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed many of the cracks and flaws in our social and political systems — and in our data systems, too. For years, our school and others have navigated how best to provide accommodations for transgender students that ensure their full safety and privacy, and the limitations in our PowerSchool system have long made that unnecessarily challenging. But the shift to at-home learning with our current system has been devastating for so many trans young people and has increased the urgency of securing what should be an easy fix. That’s why I’m proud to sign onto this letter, alongside more than 300 other concerned North Carolinians committed to the dignity and safety of all students, pushing for our state to do the right thing.”