As Chair of CoSN’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee and a former Chief Technology and Information Officer, I’ve been thinking about school district student and staff data. In particular, how school districts record student gender and parents/guardians in their student information system and how districts could potentially record preferred names and pronouns in human resource applicant tracking systems in preparation for employee interviews. A few very simple fields in an SIS database could potentially put LBGTQ+ students in danger by revealing their gender and legal name. In addition, districts wanting to be inclusive may be sending non-inclusive signals to parents of the same gender by the choices of SIS fields appearing as “mother” or “father” versus Parent/Guardian #1, Parent/Guardian #2, etc. School district sensitivity in the employee hiring process is also an area where the right data fields in a human resources information system application tracker could have far-reaching implications.
While school districts have taken steps to accommodate the needs of transgender students by changing policy that allows students to use restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity, when it comes to student records, the language in an SIS is gender binary where there are only two answers: female or male or some systems list parents as mother and father. In addition, some school districts are only representing students’ legal names in school business such as graduation and are not honoring preferred names.
Consequences of some of these issues have been revealed due to the pandemic and online learning. In some states, student legal names in an SIS serve as the basis for all rostering in school districts, even if preferred names are recorded in the system. With the sudden switch to online learning last spring, student’s legal names may have been revealed in virtual testing sites or learning management systems without the students’ consent. This is a violation of FERPA (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) and goes against any policy that states and school districts have created to protect the rights of transgender students. The sudden uncovering of a student’s legal name in online learning systems may have put the student in danger by revealing their legal name to others.
Graduation ceremonies have also brought forward instances where school districts announce legal names as opposed to preferred names for students. The case of Cobb County’s Soren Tucker made headlines this year when he requested that his preferred name be announced at graduation. Tucker is transgender and was born with a different name, one he did not want read out loud at the commencement ceremony. He acknowledged that he understood that his legal name would be printed on his diploma, but wanted his preferred name to be said out loud at the graduation ceremony. In an initial statement, the administration said that they followed school protocol in rejecting Tucker’s request, A spokesperson for the school district said that “all official school business” requires “students’ legal names.” After a change.org petition was created and over 20,200 signatures were collected by the time of graduation, officials eventually did change their processes and announced Soren’s preferred name at the commencement ceremony.
There is a school district in the Pacific Northwest that has implemented Preferred Name for students in their SIS. The student’s name has the same reporting requirements, but the preferred name is used throughout the SIS and other systems that rely on SIS data. This district also records students’ parental relationships as Parent 1, 2, 3, etc. in the student information system. Each parent also defines their own family role. This means that students can have two mothers or two fathers. For gender, all school districts in the state are required to list students’ gender from their birth certificate for reporting purposes, but this school district is working with their SIS vendor to have an alternate gender field that would be used throughout the system. It would not be used for state reporting, but could be used on all other reports. At the time of report run, staff will be able to pick from legal or preferred gender to be reported. The SIS feature should be ready later this year.
School staff also need to be recognized within school district record- keeping systems so that all staff can see themselves and their records housed in employee district databases that are inclusive. Providing opportunities for staff members to record their preferred name and gender in the staff database is another place where records should be updated. Regarding the internal business of school districts and the staff hiring process, there are already Human Resource Information System software application trackers that allow job applicants to record how their name should be pronounced and also provides a place for new applicants to list their pronouns in preparation for an interview.
As Information Technology leaders in our school districts, it is important that we think about and discuss topics such as this around the superintendent’s table. Working closely with legal counsel, district leadership, and the community to create transparent and inclusive policies for families and employees is essential. This topic may be sensitive and require a lot of teaching and learning by your school community to help others understand the district’s legal obligations. More importantly, the negative effects on students, parents, and staff by not addressing these issues head-on could have long-reaching consequences.
All students, parents/guardians and staff in our schools deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. It is unfortunate that a few fields in a student or human resources information system database have the potential to cause harm and pain for LGBTQ+ students, parents, or employees if not handled with sensitivity by school districts.