Feature image via Asbury Park Press
A 13-year-old transgender girl in Middletown, New Jersey still isn’t sure where she’ll attend school this fall just days before the semester begins.
Rachel Pepe is transitioning after years of depression and panic attacks. She speaks eloquently on her own behalf and has the support of her mom and, if this video from the Asbury Park Press is any indication, her super adorable cat.
“I have recently figured out that I am transgendered, it has been a really good process,” Rachel said. “I just want to be treated fairly and just not be bullied, because it’s just wrong and I don’t want it to happen to other people that are transgendered.”
Earlier this summer, Thorne Middle School officials informed Rachel’s mother, Angela Peters, that Rachel would be expected to behave as a boy and go by her previous name. In her previous years at Thorne, Rachel was deeply unhappy, in part because of severe bullying from classmates and a lack of intervention from the school, Angela said.
“She would get off the bus and just cry,” she told the Asbury Park Press. “Then she would go to sleep for 17 or 20 hours and refuse to go back there.”
Officials at first seemed unwilling to make any accommodations for Rachel such as allowing her to use the nurse’s bathroom or even using her chosen name because it wasn’t on her birth certificate (as if no middle school student ever went by a nickname). The district also originally denied requests to pay for Rachel’s attendance at a private school that could better accommodate her.
Such decisions almost certainly violate Title IX protections that protect trans students, and trans students in similar situations have won in courts in Colorado, Maine and other states, as Parker Malloy points out. And according to Lambda Legal Staff Attorney Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, it also violates New Jersey’s own Law Against Discrimination and Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act.
But after a few days, things seem to be turning around. District officials are now saying they will welcome Rachel back and accommodate her as best they can. In a statement posted on the district website after meeting with Rachel and her mom on Monday, Superintendent William George said:
“Although the student is welcome to return to Thorne Middle School for the 2014-2015 school year, we are now in the process of investigating alternative placements at the parent’s request. As is our regular practice, we will work with this student and her parent to agree upon the placement that best meets her educational, social and emotional needs in the least restrictive environment.”
Likewise, Principal Thomas Olauson said Rachel would be treated with respect and inclusion if she decides to return. In addition, Garden State Equality, a prominent New Jersey LGBTQ rights group, is helping mediate the problem and will lead sensitivity trainings for teachers and administrators in Middletown Township Public Schools.
“We applaud Superintendent George for taking the right steps to affirm the health and safety of students,” says Andy Bowen, Garden State Equality’s executive director. “This is a victory for transgender students everywhere. This Middletown student and students like her are heroes for standing up for their needs. We’re excited that the community came together in dialogue to bring this situation to a happy resolution.”
Of course, things aren’t entirely resolved. Rachel faces a difficult year of either adjusting to a new school environment or returning to a school where students and administrators have previously been unwelcoming to her. And no matter what she chooses, she will likely face hostility from people who don’t respect her gender. However, with the support of her family and LGBTQ organizations, she can hopefully have a great year — and pave the way for other trans students to have more inclusive experiences of coming out in public school environments.
“There could be other kids scared out there, who live secretly at school and go home and be themselves,” Rachel said. “If this helps one person, I can be happy about that, too.”