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Student Privacy Issues--Gender Identity & Sexual Orientation 

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Posted in:  
Legal
  on
August 1, 2016

School officials should be mindful of privacy issues as they relate to students’ gender identity and sexual orientation and how those issues might be communicated to parents. The question of whether students have a right to have those statuses kept from their parents is one to consider carefully in the school setting and to be clearly communicated with school employees.

There is no clear answer, and a lot will depend on the circumstances of each case. For example, the age of the student in question is a factor. A much younger student expressing a gender identity other than the sex assigned to him/her at birth might warrant parental involvement due to developmental issues surrounding the situation. In that event, there might be a real and important need to communicate with parents regarding restroom facility accommodation, possible bullying and the like.

Contrast this with a high school student who has discussed the issue with the school counselor but does not wish for the parents to know and for whom there do not appear to be any safety concerns or risks at school. Under those circumstances, it might even pose a risk of harm to the student if the family is likely to reject his/her transgender status.

On the other hand, suppose the high school student, in discussions with the school counselor, has expressed that he/she is so distraught by being transgender and not able to openly express him/herself as the preferred gender identity that he/she wants to commit suicide. That is much more likely to be a case where the district has the responsibility for getting the parents involved if it is likely that the student might harm him/herself if additional help is not sought.

It is very important to approach these privacy issues with caution so that the interests and well-being of the student are balanced with the rights of the parents to know. Please contact me with any questions that may arise.

About the Author

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Terri Thomas

Director of Legal Services

Terri Thomas serves as Director of Legal Services for OPSRC.  Ms. Thomas is an attorney practicing exclusively in the area of Oklahoma school law, with a primary focus on rural and smaller school districts. Prior to OPSRC, she served as legal counsel for the Organization of Rural Oklahoma Schools (OROS) from 1999 to 2015 and represents many school districts throughout all parts of the state.

It’s no accident that Terri wound up practicing school law.  She grew up in the school business. Terri’s father, the late Howard Thomas, was a school superintendent for 25 years in several Oklahoma school districts, including Pauls Valley—Terri’s hometown—and Ardmore. After graduating from Pauls Valley High School, Terri received her bachelor’s degree in Finance from Southern Methodist University and her Juris Doctor from the University of Oklahoma College of Law.

She and her husband, Norman Thompson, and their 8-year old daughter, Mary, reside in Oklahoma City.

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