SOUTH GLENS FALLS — Two transgender high school students were told to get off a South Glens Falls school bus on Wednesday after they say the driver became upset because they wanted to sit on the side of the bus with the boys.
A school official said the district regretted the incident, which was recorded on video and posted on Facebook, and said it never should have happened.
Superintendent of Schools Michael Patton called the matter “unfortunate” and said it was not handled appropriately at all. The students should not be segregated by sex on a bus, he said.
The incident began when the driver of a late bus asked the boys to sit on one side of the bus and the girls on the other.
Leo Washington, 16, and 15-year-old (Aaren) Layla Sweenor both identify as neither male nor female, which is referred to as trans nonbinary. (Sweenor said people know her by both names and it was how her email was signed.) They wanted to sit on the boys side.
“Before he started the bus, (the bus driver) gave us this weird look and he told us to get to the girls side of the bus and we didn’t move because we felt more comfortable where we were sitting. When we tried to explain it to him, he started yelling at us to move to the other side of the bus,” Washington said.
Washington believes the rationale for separating the sexes was to avoid interactions among couples.
“It made me so angry and so upset that we were being discriminated against over something as trivial as gender identity — because it’s who we are. We can’t change it. It honestly just was a smack in the face,” Washington said.
Washington said school officials are not taking the situation lightly.
“Especially this year, they’ve been all about acceptance and nondiscrimination and different stuff like that,” Washington said.
This was the first time Washington experienced something like what happened on the bus, Washington said.
“Everyone in the school has always been welcoming about my gender situation,” Washington said.
Washington has been gender nonconforming for about a year and a half.
“I always felt like I didn’t really fit in as a girl, but I didn’t fit as a guy either. I always just kind of existed,” Washington said.
Sweenor said in an email to The Post-Star that the two students wanted to sit where they were most comfortable. Other students showed pages in the student handbook to the driver to show him that he cannot control them based on their gender expression. They also showed him the anti-discrimination law.
“The whole time he said: ‘I don’t care. It’s my bus,’ and ‘I’m not moving till I get what I want.’ He treated us as if we were wrong,” Sweenor said.
The two eventually got off the bus and the driver did not contact any officials about what happened and left without a way for them to get home, Washington said.
Sweenor was been forced to come out of the closet as transgender because of the situation.
“The whole experience was traumatic. I’ve been so terrified of my feelings and who I am and trying to be myself publicly has been horrifying,” Sweenor said. “Coming into high school was a scary thing to begin with, so members of school faculty need to be trained better on how to act.
“Students should not be discriminated against because of their race, gender or sexuality in a place where they’re supposed to be safe to learn. We need to make schools a safe space for everyone,” Sweenor added.
Patton said he does not believe that the driver intended to discriminate but wanted to create some type of order on the bus. However, he could have handled the situation better, Patton said.
“That practice can never continue. We’ve got to come up with other ways to organize kids on a bus — as long as they’re following the rules and following expectations,” he said.
Patton said the district would be meeting with the bus driver, but he did not say more because he said it is a personnel matter.
Patton said the students were completely within their right to refuse the request.
After the students got off the bus, Patton said one of the district’s administrators happened to be in the back of the school.
“He contacted their parents immediately and talked with the kids. We were able to get them a second bus,” he said.
Patton said the district also received information about the incident through text messages from students on the bus sent to the school’s anonymous tip line, which was established this year.
“We don’t tolerate any form of discrimination against kids. All students need to feel safe. They need to feel supported — whether it’s in the classroom or on a school bus,” he said.
The district trains its staff every year. All staff members on Sept. 5 received information about the Dignity for All Students Act, and Patton said this incident will be a valuable learning experience and refresher.