School bus drivers need the authority to control their student passengers and keep their buses safe.
Teenage students need the freedom to define their own gender and sexuality in accordance with their deepest feelings about themselves.
Of these competing claims in the recent episode in South Glens Falls, where a bus driver kicked two transgender students off the bus because they insisted on sitting on the boys side, the students have the more compelling claim.
One way to think about difficult decisions is to compare worst-case scenarios, so let’s do that: Between 2004 and 2013, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 54 school-age children died in accidents involving “school transportation vehicles.”
Those accidents may have included school vehicles less safe than buses, like vans, but as a rough guide, we can call it five students a year. Lots of factors contribute to school bus crashes, but it’s a good bet that distractions caused by student passengers are sometimes involved.
In 2015 alone, 2,061 teenagers ages 15 to 19 killed themselves. The teenage suicide rate has been rising, as has the overall suicide rate in the U.S. Many things can lead to teen suicide, especially mental health problems.
Teens who are struggling with their sexuality or their gender identity, or both, are especially vulnerable to depression and suicidal thoughts. In a 2015 study of transgender adults, 40 percent reported having tried to kill themselves, almost all of them before age 25.
If you look at worst-case scenarios, there is much more reason to fear teen suicide and to follow policies designed to prevent it than there is to fear fatal school bus crashes.
Teens are sensitive. They need understanding and support. Forcing transgender teens to make a public choice between the girls side or the boys side on a crowded school bus could be emotionally damaging.
Fortunately, in South Glens Falls, it appears the other students on the bus rallied to the side of the transgender students and asked the driver to leave them alone.
Fortunately, the school administration has also backed the students’ right to choose the gender they identify with.
So the students have not been isolated and humiliated, as so many teenagers have been in the past. The critical issue here is not whether the students are “really” male or female, however you define that, but how they feel about themselves.
None of us loses anything by allowing teenagers to question and explore their gender identity. But teens in that situation lose a great deal when people they count on for support withhold it. Teens can be emotionally wounded if they are criticized or rejected during a time when they are already doubting themselves, already feeling confused, vulnerable and isolated.
The situation in South Glens Falls could have turned ugly for the two teens kicked off the bus. It’s easy to imagine a time when, instead of showing support, their peers would have stayed silent in the face of discrimination from an adult authority, or even worse, teased the two who were singled out.
We have come a long way in accepting and welcoming people who are not stereotypically heterosexual, and that is especially true among young people. In a few decades, we have moved forward from being a society where many gays and lesbians felt the need to hide their sexuality to one in which same-sex couples are neither unusual nor remarkable.
We are moving along the same path of understanding and acceptance now when it comes to gender identity. The “sweet transvestite” character in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” was transgressive in 1975. Now, many of us know more than one person who does not identify as the gender they were identified as at birth.
Returning to South Glens Falls, we don’t know what the driver was trying to accomplish by segregating the bus by gender. But we would suggest that, when he is having a problem with particular students, he deal with them and leave the rest of the kids alone.
We can’t see a good reason for separating a school bus into a boys side and a girls side, but we can see good reasons not to. School and state policy requires that students’ own gender identifications be respected. But more than that, our aim when it comes to interacting with teens questioning who they are should be, at the least, to do no harm. Let them discover who they are, and once they do that, let them be.