Prevention and Protection

SFPS’ gender support process works to support trans students

Students wait outside of Capital High School at the end of a school day. (Mo Charnot)

College student Owen Markson Belt was in middle school when he first realized he was transgender. He doesn’t remember a lot from that period of his life, but he does recall one thing.

“It was a little tough for those around me to adjust to me being male,” he tells SFR in an email.

During his senior year of high school in December 2020, Markson Belt and his family moved from Missouri to New Mexico, and he spent the year learning online through Santa Fe Public Schools. Despite the lack of connection with other students, he says the change in environment “helped me feel more at ease attending classes.”

The SFPS Office of Student Wellness also helped smooth his transition. Before he began attending classes, Markson Belt and his parents met with the department’s prevention coordinator to discuss how to best support him as a trans student, otherwise known as the district’s Gender Support Process.

“Without my parents, I don’t think I would have known about the gender support plan,” Markson Belt says. “It allowed me to go by my current name and gender without any of the teachers or fellow students knowing my prior name. It was a major relief coming from a district where I had to remind teachers before classes started of my gender identity and pronouns being different than what was listed on the attendance sheets.”

Jenn Jevertson, the school district’s assistant director in the Office of Student Wellness, tells SFR that actions as simple as using a student’s preferred name and pronouns can be “one of the most powerful things people can do” to include LGBTQ+ students. She compares the action to a teacher making sure to pronounce every student’s name correctly.

“If a student is in school, and they’re not feeling like they belong, like people see who they truly are and don’t feel safe to be out as who they are, how are they supposed to learn all the things that they’re trying to learn?” she asks. “How are they supposed to feel comfortable enough to then make the best social connections that they can make and have the most academic success they can have? We’re helping kids succeed academically, we’re keeping them in school, keeping them connected to us and also just showing them, ‘you matter in this world.’”

Jevertson says she believes that using a student’s proper name and pronouns is a form of suicide prevention for LGBTQ students, adding, “And it’s not that hard.”

According to The Trevor Project’s 2022 survey of mental health among New Mexico’s LGBTQ youth, 45% of transgender and nonbinary people from ages 13-24 had “seriously considered suicide” since the prior year, and 11% had attempted suicide in that time frame. Trans and nonbinary youth also had high anxiety and depression rates (79% and 64%, respectively).

“Those rates are significantly higher than students who identify as straight or cisgender. And it’s not because of their actual identity—it’s because of how society treats people with those identities,” Jevertson says. “We’re making sure that we’re doing everything possible for these students so that they will come to school, they’ll still be here in this world, they’ll still come to school and have success in life and whatever they choose to do.”

SFPS’ Gender Support Process is a procedure born from the school district’s policies against discrimination (specifically policies 330 and 331), and outlines how the district and its staff should implement the policies to support trans students by making their education more accessible.

Jevertson describes the district’s individualized gender support plans as “informal,” and says they can be changed at any time if the student wishes. Typically, she sits down with the student alongside a representative from the school and asks the student which “options feel right for them.” She often meets with parents to explain how the policy works and answer any questions they have.

“I’ve met with a lot of parents who have been so relieved that someone in the school is going to look after their kid and accept them for who they are, and help them make their path through school just like each of our students,” she says. “There’s actually been a number of families who have moved to Santa Fe because of our policy, whether it’s across the state or even out-of-state.”

Some examples of support that students can receive in addition to going by their chosen name and pronouns include: access to gender-neutral restrooms; confidentiality about their gender; changing their name and/or gender marker on Powerschool (the website the school district uses for staff, parents and students to access information about classes, assignments and grades); and using the same restroom Powerschool lists as their gender marker. The latter two require a parent or caregiver’s signature.

In recent years, conservative lawmakers in the US have increasingly challenged gender-affirming policies in public schools. According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, Republicans in the New Mexico House of Representatives attempted and failed to amend House Bill 7 in July 2023—a law prohibiting public bodies from denying reproductive or gender-affirming health care to anyone—by requiring parents of children receiving such care to be notified.

According to Jevertson, SFPS works to provide support for “any LGBTQ child in the schools who needs it,” and adds that she has worked with students who have both “incredibly supportive” parents and parents who have threatened to disown their children if they came out as LGBTQ.

When a support plan is worked out, Jevertson says she ensures all staff understand the details and follow the school district’s policy correctly for the student in question.

ío Escamilla, a program manager for the New Mexico Genders and Sexualities Alliance Network at the Mountain Center in Tesuque, tells SFR they believe the work Jevertson does with trans students “is really important to the schools and to the community.”

“I think that any opportunity that a young person has to be seen and validated for who they authentically are can help save their life, can help keep them in school, can help them get better grades…supporting LGBTQ youth just makes the entire community better,” they say.

Escamilla’s work with the NMGSAN largely centers around education and support for LGBTQ youth, both inside and outside of nearby schools. They oversee staff who facilitate trainings at schools and other organizations in the area on LGBTQ sensitivity, suicide prevention, anti-oppression and intersectionality.

“The really cool work is when I get to work with young people directly,” Escamilla says. “Working with queer people directly is so rewarding because I can see how much they get out of it.”

Escamilla leads a youth support group for ages 14 through 24 that meets every Thursday (and once a month, forgoes the session for rock climbing nights) to connect LGBTQ youth with one another throughout the year. Throughout the pandemic, the support group met via Zoom and was open for LGBTQ youth across the entire state, but the NMGSAN switched back to in-person meetings in March this year after numbers began to dwindle.

Escamilla says the youth support group is small, with about five or six regular attendees to support group meetings and other events, but they say they “have no doubt” that the numbers will grow throughout the summer, emphasizing the organization’s importance to connecting LGBTQ youth and helping them succeed.

“Our work helps youth to become more resilient and connected…and give young people a chance to get to know each other in a way that isn’t always possible at school or when they’re in other groups of, for instance, other cisgender or straight young people,” Escamilla says. “We’ve had young people who say they’ve never been in spaces where it’s just queer people, and they felt so free to share some of their desires for the future, things they want for themselves as far as what they want their education to look like, their work life after they graduate, where they want to live—that’s so powerful.”

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