By Tea Kvetenadze
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Secondary schools for girls across the United States are grappling with a difficult and increasingly common question: what is the best approach when a student or applicant no longer identifies as female or is going through a gender transition?
As students who are openly transgender or non-binary - those who identify as neither male nor female - have become more visible at girls schools in recent years, educators are re-defining policies on admission, retention and other issues.
The challenge, experts say, is to create policies that support and respect students while preserving the historic mission of these schools to educate and empower young women in exclusively female environments.
But many schools have yet to clarify policies related to gender identity, and that could keep some students from being open about their gender expression, said Joanne Glusman, president of the Main Line Youth Alliance, who works with adolescents who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer.
"There are certainly kids who don't feel safe or comfortable coming out in their single-sex school," Glusman said.
Studies have shown transgender youth are often bullied and are more at risk of depression, anxiety, and suicide, among other mental health concerns, than their non-trans peers.
A study by the University of Minnesota published in the journal Pediatrics found that almost 3 percent of 9th through 12th graders identified as transgender or gender-nonconforming, a term used to describe those who don't conform to traditional gender conventions. On that basis, hundreds if not thousands of trans and non-binary students likely attend the about 375 girls schools in the United States, though no precise count exists.
"Middle school and high school, that's when you really start learning more about yourself and growing," said Ezra Morales, 18, a trans, gender non-conforming activist who recently graduated from the Ann Richards School For Girls in Austin.
Among the dozens of girls schools contacted by Reuters, several said they had already developed transgender policies, some said they are having early discussions or have created taskforces and a number of others have taken no action.
Many schools said they decide on a case-by-case basis whether a non-binary or transgender student who no longer identifies as a girl will stay, either as a matter of policy or in anticipation of more specific guidelines.
That approach is in keeping with recommendations from a National Coalition of Girls' Schools taskforce that educators make such decisions on "an individual basis," rather than codifying rigid policies.
But making case-by-case decisions can present problems due to the conscious or unconscious biases of administrators, according to Davey Shlasko, founder of Think Again, which trains schools on issues such as trans inclusion. That raises questions about basic fairness and could put a school in legal jeopardy, he said.
Several schools, including the prestigious Marlborough School in Los Angeles and Nightingale-Bamford on Manhattan's Upper East Side, have policies considering any applicant who identifies as female, including those assigned male at birth.
When it comes to retaining transitioning students who are already enrolled, Nightingale is "very much taking the case-by-case position," said Head of School Paul Burke.
With enrolled students who identify as male or gender-nonconforming, he said Nightingale prefers to have a dialogue to make sure the school is still the best environment for them.
In recent years, Nightingale and other schools have made more trans-inclusive accommodations such as dropping the tradition of students wearing white dresses at graduation, a practice that Burke described as "clearly gendered."
'WE'RE NOT THERE YET'
But there are some girls schools that have not developed policies despite having openly trans or non-binary students.
The National Cathedral School, an Episcopal day school in Washington D.C., has no formal policy even though they've had students transition in the past. "We're not there yet," said Scott Butterworth, the school's director of communications.
Stoneleigh-Burnham in Massachusetts, Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart in Miami and Kent Place in New Jersey also have no formal transgender protocols but say they are discussing the issue.
Brearley, an exclusive private New York day school, said in its gender diversity statement it would accept any female-identifying applicant and work with and support transitioning pupils, including accommodating their choice of name and pronoun. They will, however, continue to refer to students en masse as "girls" or "young women."
Marlborough adopted practices two years ago for those who no longer identify as female: it allows students in 12th grade to graduate and treats 11th graders on a case-by-case basis, but younger students are asked to switch schools.
The school concedes that its practices could very well change in the future, however, as its thinking about the issue evolves.
"We're never going to be static," said Head of School Priscilla Sands. "We're never going to say: 'That's what we wrote in 2016 and that's what it will be forever.'"
(Editing by Frank McGurty and Susan Thomas)