Back in February 2017, newly appointed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos wiped out a lot of work done to protect transgender students in schools.

It seemed a simple position-statement move at the time. Just months before, guidance had been put in place with an Obama-era "Dear Colleague" letter that instructed schools not to discriminate against students on the basis of gender identity. It was meant to clarify the government's interpretation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and end patchwork policies and lawsuits involving transgender students.

DeVos, however, had argued that schools' transgender discrimination issues are best "solved at the state and local level" and left only vague steps to take, if any, to ensure trans students have the same access to a quality education as other students.


DeVos at the Department of Education on Feb. 8, 2017. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

It was a huge blow to the trans community, leaving trans students more vulnerable than ever.

But now, a year has passed, and the Education Department is clarifying its position. And it's not good.

According to BuzzFeed reporter Dominic Holden, Education Department spokesperson Liz Hill said on record that it's the agency's position that restroom-related complaints from trans students are not covered under the law. This step, in explicitly saying that the law doesn't cover trans students, goes beyond simply rescinding the Obama guidance.

"Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, not gender identity," Hill told BuzzFeed.

It is worth noting that a number of federal courts have found that bans on sex discrimination do cover gender identity, in contradiction to Hill's assertion. And while the Education Department's statement doesn't actually change the law, it has the potential to embolden anti-trans bullies and to encourage districts to flout the court rulings.

Parents of trans students have been heartbroken by what has unfolded from DeVos's first actions — especially ones who met with her.

After DeVos rescinded the "Dear Colleagues" letter, student LGBTQ issues defender GLSEN arranged a meeting between DeVos, a handful of trans students, and their parents.

"She sat across the table from our family and two other families and expressed deep concern over the well-being of transgender students, like my daughter Ellie," said Vanessa Ford, a mother of a 6-year-old trans child, in a GLSEN press statement. "[She ...] looked me in the eyes and assured me she had my daughter’s safety in mind. However, today’s actions make it clear DeVos’ Department of Education has no desire to protect Ellie or the thousands like her."

Trans student Gavin Grimm's discrimination case was set to be heard by the Supreme Court regarding Title IX's discrimination protections and trans students, but DeVos' actions halted that process. Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Time.

Another mother, Katharine Prescott, lost her trans child to suicide and calls the Education Department's latest stance appalling and a tragedy.

"Barring a student from using the facilities that align with their gender identity is discrimination," Prescott said in the GLSEN statement. "If a transgender girl is forced to use the boys’ room at school, it places their safety and well-being in jeopardy. This denies her basic right to a public education. This administration continues to fail to protect our most vulnerable students."

And these students are extremely vulnerable. PFLAG's executive director, Jaime M. Grant, reacts to this new Title IX stance with a plea of understanding that the high rates of self-harm among transgender youth is not self-hatred but societal frustration.

"Those numbers are a result of seeing no possible path to grow a life, not the result of hating one’s gender," Grant writes in an email. "If I can’t use the facilities in elementary school, how am I going to get to college? Hold a job? Get an apartment? Find friends and loved ones? If my teachers won’t take a stand for me, who will? These are the questions constantly confronted."

Even though some aren't tuned in to trans students' issues, this slide into discrimination ties into a number of other topics.

Human Rights Campaign press secretary Sarah McBride argues the Trump administration's fight against trans students is simply one part of a larger ongoing effort to undermine marginalized groups. In an interview, she says, "When you turn your back on transgender students merely trying to get through the school day, you're undermining their ability not just to succeed academically, but to pursue their dreams, and that has a lifetime worth of consequences."

McBride speaks at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

McBride continues, drawing attention to intersectionality:

"If you're not part of the transgender community, you are likely part of some community that this administration has fought to undermine access to a quality education for. When they attack transgender students, it also makes it easier to attack students with disabilities  and survivors of sexual assault, and certainly those at the intersection of all of those identities."

Critics of trans-inclusive policies often argue that the trans community makes up just a tiny fraction of the whole and therefore isn't worth protecting.

MJ Okma, the associate director of news and rapid response for GLAAD, an LGBTQ media watchdog organization, thinks that's the wrong way to think about it.

"The transgender population is larger than most people ever realize," he says, "but even if you want to brush it off as a small community, nobody should have to live in fear of being denied the ability to meet basic physical needs at school." Especially, he explains, when there's no evidence transgender students' bathroom use puts anyone else at risk.

In any case, though, it shouldn't be so hard for adults — especially those in our government charged with the responsibility to look out for all our interests — to grasp the concept of empathy. Okma gives great insight:

"One way I try to explain this to cisgender people is by asking them to think about one thing that made you different in grade school, then imagine that core aspect of yourself being debated, attacked, and demonized in a public forum. Then imagine going back to school to facing your peers day after day while this is happening."

Activist and TV personality Jazz Jennings at WE Day California 2016. Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images.

There are things you can do to help ensure that all students have access to a quality education, regardless of gender identity, race, religion, disability, or other factors.

McBride calls on allies to the trans community to "be the heart that Betsy DeVos clearly lacks and step up and speak out for transgender students."

"The policies impacting trans students aren't just made in Washington, they're made in state capitals and in school boards and city halls across the country." Fighting for equal rights on a local level can be tough, especially when there are anti-LGBTQ groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom (the name is a bit of an inaptronym) suing any school district that follows DeVos' advice in determining policies for trans students that work best for them. To add a dash of irony to the story, it's important to note that DeVos and her family have long been major ADF donors.

"We need people to vote, not just in presidential elections or midterm elections, but in school board elections and [local] elections," McBride says. "Those institutions can and should step in to support trans students if they're not already."

[rebelmouse-image 19475830 dam="1" original_size="750x603" caption="Nicole Maines at the 2016 GLAAD media awards in New York City. In 2014, Maines won a discrimination lawsuit against her school district. Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images." expand=1]Nicole Maines at the 2016 GLAAD media awards in New York City. In 2014, Maines won a discrimination lawsuit against her school district. Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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Of course, wrecks aside, buying a used car might end up costing more in the long run after needing repairs, breaking down and just a general slew of unexpected surprises. But hey, at least we can all look back and laugh.

My first car, for example, was a hand-me-down Toyota of some sort from my mother. I don’t recall the specific model, but I definitely remember getting into a fender bender within the first week of having it. She had forgotten to get the brakes fixed … isn’t that a fun story?

Jimmy Fallon recently asked his “Tonight Show” audience on Twitter to share their own worst car experiences. Some of them make my brake fiasco look like cakewalk (or cakedrive, in this case). Either way, these responses might make us all feel a little less alone. Or at the very least, give us a chuckle.

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