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Transgender Youth Don’t See Space For Themselves; Court Ruling May Change That

Jess Jones is the education liaison at the Transgender Center at St. Louis Children's Hospital. A recent Missouri Supreme Court ruling in favor of a transgender student was "was a great surprise for me," Jones said.
Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Jess Jones is the education liaison at the Transgender Center at St. Louis Children's Hospital. A recent Missouri Supreme Court ruling in favor of a transgender student "was a great surprise for me," Jones said.

A Missouri Supreme Court ruling from earlier this year is giving advocates hope that stronger protections for transgender youth in school will soon follow.

A transgender student sued the Blue Springs School R-IV District for access to the bathroom and other facilities that aligned with the student’s gender identity. The state’s top court ruled in late February in favor of the student.

St. Louis Public Radio reported in 2017 that the vast majority of schools in the St. Louis area do not have set policies for accommodating transgender students, instead relying on existing anti-discrimination policies. Only 5% of school districts in Missouri have official guidelines to support transgender students, according to the national LGBTQ-advocacy organization GLSEN.

At the time, education legal experts told St. Louis Public Radio that nonexistent or uncodified policies leave the potential for unequal treatment and discrimination, as well as lawsuits.

Jess Jones is the education liaison for Washington University's Transgender Center at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. Jones, who identifies as nonbinary transgender and uses the pronouns they/them, is a former high school English teacher in North Carolina and St. Louis. They spoke with St. Louis Public Radio about the implications of the recent court ruling and the importance of creating supportive environments for transgender youth at an age where they’re at high risk of self-harm.

Jess Jones: That ruling gave me a lot of hope, to be honest. I wasn't hopeful leading up to it, but you know, that ruling was a great surprise for me. I do think it's setting a precedent for how these cases are going to be handled going forward and the laws and policies that are going to be established in the future.

Ryan Delaney: We reported two years ago or so that there's only about a handful of schools in the St. Louis area that have set policies and guidelines on how schools accommodate students who are transitioning. How does that ambiguity play into their ability to cope with everything else that’s going on?

Jones: This plays out in school because policy is a cornerstone of school culture and climate. When we have policies in place that say we recognize this population of people and they're deserving of rights and respect, that sets the tone for really how people interact in that environment and gives protections for those students.

Delaney: There's a pretty alarming statistic in terms of attempted suicide among transgender teens. So what is that?

Jones: So, nationwide studies have consistently shown that around 40% of transgender people attempt suicide at some point in their lifetime. This doesn't account for suicidal ideation — other forms of self-harm. These are actual attempts to take their own life. And research also shows us that about 90% of those attempts happen before the age of 25, which is even more concerning that this is an epidemic among our youth.

Delaney: What causes some of these feelings?

Jones: At the core of everything is not seeing a space for themselves in society. Our society isn't built for transgender people; it's not built for gender-nonconforming people. And those youth grow up not seeing themselves represented in society, and they don't see a future for themselves.

Delaney: And how does that actually play out from your work and your role?

Jones: Even having one supportive adult in the life of a trans or nonbinary youth reduces their risk of suicide, self-harm, dropping out of school, substance abuse and many other risk-taking in harmful behaviors. So, I see my work as hopefully causing a ripple effect where I can train teachers and school administrators how to be supportive to trans and nonbinary youth. Because what I'm finding is there's a lot of folks out there who want to be supportive, but they just don't know how. These aren't things that we learn about in our teacher-preparation programs. These are things we don't learn about in our specialist or administrative programs. So a lot of folks walk into school environments, not necessarily not being supportive of our trans and nonbinary youth, but not knowing how to support them.

Delaney: What would you tell a student, a child who is having this level of depression and suicidal ideology?

Jones: When a student is at risk of suicide, I make sure that we follow the proper channels. I make sure that we involve mental health professionals. But also on a personal note, I let the youth know that there is a future and there is hope, and there are people out there just like you. There is a future to look forward to for those youth, whether they see it in that moment or not.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.