After lobbying by LGBTQ groups, N.C. school records will list students’ chosen names

'It’s still only a piece of the puzzle'

BY HANNAH MCCLELLAN, News + Record Staff
Posted 3/10/21

Under the new PowerSchool update, announced to school districts by DPI on Friday, a student's “preferred name” will be displayed on most records. The only report that will display a student’s legal name is official state student transcripts.

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After lobbying by LGBTQ groups, N.C. school records will list students’ chosen names

'It’s still only a piece of the puzzle'

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When Northwood senior Caroline Puckett first heard that the N.C. Department of Public Instruction was updating its PowerSchool student information system to display a “preferred name” on most state records, she couldn’t believe it.

The co-president of her school’s Pride club, she immediately thought of all the students whom this move would make more comfortable. She also thought of the students already graduated — like her sibling, Piper — who had experienced the dysphoria of being misgendered or “dead named,” by being called by their birth name.

“I personally do not have a change name or have any sort of conflict with my current name right now, but I know a lot of people who do,” said Puckett, who is bisexual and goes by she/they pronouns and requested the pronouns be alternately used.

“I have a lot of people in my club who may have a different preferred name, or changed their name," they said. "I think they’re going to be really excited to hear that people are going to be actually seeing them and viewing them as people and not just a system of students.”

At Northwood, Puckett said they’ve heard about teachers who call students by their dead name, even after being corrected. “It’s really frustrating to hear those kinds of things,” Puckett said.

“I just think that it will make people feel better about themselves,” said Pride Co-President Oliver Ewy, a sophomore at Northwood, of the change. “Because obviously, seeing a name that you don’t associate with yourself, or that you associate with negative things can make someone really uncomfortable.”

Under the new PowerSchool update, announced to school districts by DPI on Friday, a student's “preferred name” will be displayed on most records. The only report that will display a student’s legal name is official state student transcripts.

The move follows years of lobbying by LGBTQ advocacy groups, who’ve said using a student’s legal or birth name causes emotional harm to transgender students and can put them at risk for being outed.

“This is a really big deal for a lot of North Carolina families,” Craig White, supportive schools coordinator at the Asheville-based Campaign for Southern Equality, told the News + Record. “This is something that most states around the country have had in place for years. So it is a very important step forward, but it’s still only a piece of the puzzle when we look at schools having full comprehensive protection and support for LGBTQ students.”

Northwood Pride club member Alison Burger, who is a 9th grader, said the change is important because school is where a lot of students find their personality and who they are.

"So it's really important that their names are represented as who they want to be," she said.

DPI said the change will go into effect during a maintenance update March 19-21, and that the preferred names will be used on records such as state reports, student report cards and teacher grade books.

‘This is a welcome change’

KJ Hill, a senior at Northwood who is transgender, learned about the change on Wednesday — the same day he started widely sharing his chosen name, "KJ," with people.  While he'd previously been using he/him pronouns, he said he was waiting for his lacrosse season to end to "completely come out." The announcement of the PowerSchool change felt like perfect timing, Hill said.

He's glad the change is happening, especially knowing how a transgender friend had previously been dead named in PowerSchool and on documents.

"I wish it would have happened a long time ago, especially now that I'm a senior," he said. "But I think it's amazing — it helps empower and just make trans people feel validated.

"I'm very, very happy about it, and I feel like it's very much so necessary."

While students who have legally changed their names will see their preferred names changed in PowerSchool, White said that process could pose challenges to minor students who might not have access to financial or legal resources. The Campaign for Southern Equality first contacted DPI about this issue in 2017, White said.

When the pandemic pushed learning aboard virtual platforms, he said many user IDs for those platforms were created based on the names listed in PowerSchool.

“All of a sudden, students were being asked to make the transition to virtual learning, which was hard for everybody,” White said. “But a lot of transgender students were all of a sudden seeing their legal names pop up in front of themselves and other teachers and classmates.”

In response, the organization worked with about 300 parents, students and educators to send a letter to former Superintendent Mark Johnson last April, “explaining why this was such a critical issue that needed to be addressed right away.”

In Chatham County Schools, Assistant Supt. of Academic Services and Instructional Support Division Amanda Hartness said the district is waiting to determine how this change will impact the other software platforms that PowerSchool feeds into. CCS will also look to further guidance from DPI, which said it would share a short demonstration video with schools sometime this week.

“Obviously, we always want to protect the safety and rights of all of our students, and we’ve had to work with a variety of our families that have transgender students,” Hartness said. “We try to put a variety of different security things in place for them so that their identity is safe and all that. However, PowerSchool created a really big challenge, and it was a hurdle that went beyond our reach.”

She noted that while the district can train teachers to ensure they understand the importance of using preferred names, it hasn’t previously had control over documents such as report cards that are generated through PowerSchool. Once the new change goes into effect, Hartness said the district will have a formalized process for any student profile changes, including the preferred name field.

“This is a welcome change and we know that many of our families of LGBTQ students will be happy that we can now accommodate their requests,” she said.

Still, some conservative groups have criticized the move, saying the school system should only be allowed to change a student’s name once they’ve “fully transitioned” — a phrase for which there exists no uniform definition. Hartness said she’s heard pushback from people who think students will now be able to “make this change willy nilly,” which she says is not the case. It’s her understanding, she said, that as with other student record changes, the process will be parent driven.

In its Friday announcement, DPI said it’s updating documentation that will give schools more specific details — likely to include information on what will happen in the case that students and parents disagree on a student’s preferred name.

‘It’s not abstract for transgender and nonbinary students’

While the change is being widely celebrated by transgender students and advocates, all students will have the ability to record their “preferred name” and legal name in the updated system.

Northwood’s Ewy said he hopes the change can serve as a sort of catalyst for more LGBTQ protection in schools.

“I would hope that this leads to more recognition of transgender students in schools, especially in North Carolina schools,” Ewy said, “and to see how they can improve other aspects like restroom use and student sports, since that is a big issue especially in southern states.”

Hill also raised concerns that Northwood, and other high schools across the state, needing more unisex and single-stall bathrooms. Up until his junior year, he said he’d used the women’s restroom, which was uncomfortable.

“I definitely had a lot of experiences (where) people would ask me why I was there and things like that,” he said. “And so I feel like there's room for improvement.”

The expected PowerSchool change is “just a step in the right direction,” he added.

White concurred, saying that schools should also be working toward anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies for students — particularly for LGBTQ students and LGBTQ students of color, who data shows experience more bullying and harassment online and at school than other groups of students.

“When we’re talking about policies and decision, that’s kind of an abstract thing, but it’s not abstract for transgender and nonbinary students ... They either get the message of, ‘You’re welcomed, you are supported, you’re part of this community,’ or they get the message of, ‘You’re rejected, we don’t want you here,’” White said. “And for a population of students that is already wrestling with some of the highest rates of anxiety, depression, substance use, homelessness and suicidal ideation, we cannot afford to be sending them anything but a message of love and support.

“To all the LGBTQ young people out there, I want you to know that people have your back, that you’re an amazing person, just who you are. And that there are folks that care about you.”

For Puckett, though she knows the change still might not impact how certain teachers interact with students, and that other challenges for LGBTQ students remain, DPI’s announcement feels like much-needed good news.

“It’s just really great to know that there are good things coming to us,” they said. “Because I feel like in the media, a lot of things that are portrayed for our community specifically are pretty much just negative … I think it’s really, really good to hear those positive changes that we’re having, so that we can work toward having a more equal system of education and for students in general.”

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.

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