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What's it like to come out to your 8-year-old friends?WYPR's Mary Rose Madden brings us the story of Eli, a transgender girl living in Baltimore. Eli and her parents share their experiences understanding Eli's gender identity and educating her school community.Grant funding to support education reporting on WYPR is provided by the Sylvan Laureate Foundation.

Eight and Out: The need for a school-wide policy

Kimberly Mooney/Twitter

Eli McBride shared her story with her classmates, some of whom bullied her the first time she told them she was a girl.

Her next move was to hit a Baltimore City Board of Education meeting and tell the members they needed to do more to help kids like her.

That was seven months ago. When it came time for the the public comments section she sat down and read her prepared statement.

My name is Eli McBride. I am 8 years old, and I am in second grade at Roland Park Elementary Middle School. I am also creative gender. I have a lot of friends and supporters at my school. But it wasn’t always this way. My mom and dad and I had to teach people about being creative gender so that I can feel free to be who I am. Schools need to already know about creative gender kids. And they need to know how to help them and support them and give them their rights. Some of the kids in our GSA need more support because their own mom and dad are not supportive. We request that you make a policy about how to support transgender kids in all schools in Baltimore City.

Eli knew how it felt to have the support of the principal, teachers, and a school psychologist. Her school, Roland Park Elementary Middle School, established a welcoming climate at the school for LGBT kids.

Eli's mom, Stephanie Safran, said they have that culture "because we are working very hard at it."

But not all LGBT students have that support.

Credit Roland Park Elementary Middle School/Twitter
The Roland Park Elementary Middle School GSA won the GLSEN “GSA of the Year” Award.

A 2015 National School Climate Survey by the advocacy group GLSEN (Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network) found almost 60 percent of LGBT students felt unsafe at school. Many of them don’t report incidents of harassment or brutality to their teachers. And 63 percent of the students who did report an incident said that school staff did nothing in response or told the student to ignore it.

Below is GLSEN's report on Maryland's school climate. 

Maryland State Snapshot - NSCS by Jamyla Krempel on Scribd

James Padden, director of services related to special education for the city schools, says the system doesn't have a policy yet, but they’ve had a couple of visits from GLSEN in the past few years. And they have a social worker and school psychologist in every school; one social worker for every 650 students and a psychologist for every 850 students. 

Padden says they can call in additional counseling services upon request.  

Sean Conley, the chief academic officer, says school officials are doing research to help them develop a policy. They’ve been checking out different school districts and trying to understand where to go next.

“How do we identify some sort of socio-emotional framework and curriculum," he asks. "Instead of being reactive, how can we be proactive into meeting the needs of our students?"

Conley concedes they haven’t found all the answers they want, but they're working on it.

"We are going to need to approach experts – the people who are talking about it right here."

Meanwhile Montgomery, Anne Arundel, Howard, and Frederick counties all have a policy or statement regarding LGBT students.

Liz Barrett, vice president of the Frederick County Board of Education, says they created their policy after they heard from dozens of LGBT students at a board meeting last February. The students said the old anti-discrimination policy was being implemented inconsistently. She says the board considered access to locker rooms and restrooms, but they didn't want to just focus on accommodations. 

"We focused on how to change the conversation from tolerance and access, to the notion that we are creating welcoming schools."

They drafted a policy,  then met five times to hash out the details with the community’s input. That policy came out in June.   

Jennifer Leininger, who leads a program at the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago to train educators and pediatricians in how to support LGBT kids, says having a school wide policy could bring guidance and resources to a school district’s principals and counselors. Her team has created a model policy that's been adopted by various schools around the country.

“We’ve done trainings with 2000 teachers, trainers, and medical professionals. It used to be that we called them and told them they need this, but now they tell us – 'we need you,'” she says. 

So the question is, will Baltimore City schools develop such a policy, and if so, when?

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