Kristina Hernandez waited nearly a year before she could use the girl’s restroom at Harney Middle School.
A sixth-grader at the time, Kristina spent the summer after elementary school preparing to transition from male to female — something she had desired for years. She encountered no intolerance from other students and said no parent lodged a single complaint about their child sharing a restroom or locker room with her.
The administration at the campus on Hollywood Boulevard north of Sahara Avenue, however, required Kristina to use the toilet in the school nurse’s office, often making her late for class.
“After a while I stopped eating and drinking at school to avoid having to go,” she said during a Clark County School Board meeting last month. “I had to beg, plead and fight for months just to be allowed to be called by my chosen name and pronouns in class.
“I had to be the one to explain myself and my situation to substitute teachers, lunch ladies and support staff because my school did not protect me,” Kristina, now 12, told school board members in April. “It is your responsibility to make sure that all students are safe in school. You are failing me.”
After transferring to another public middle school, Kristina stopped losing sleep at night. A name and gender change on legal documents also helped, since administrators at her new campus couldn’t challenge her gender.
Kristina and two other transgender students shared their experiences with the school board at an April 23 meeting, pleading with them to enact a policy that offers guaranteed protection and equal treatment for transitioning students across the Clark County School District, the fifth-largest system in the nation.
The students plan to continue pressing for change at Thursday’s board meeting, but many of their parents expect the calls for action to fall on deaf ears.
“We’re going to make it plainly clear that we’re serious, and we’re not going away,” said Kristina’s mother, Laura Hernandez. “I am going to be heard no matter how loudly I have to yell.
“Whether that means I have to file a lawsuit, I am prepared to do that. We’ve passed the point of playing nice, and something needs to happen and happen now.”
CASE BY CASE
For years, the district has fielded requests for a policy that accommodates all students, regardless of gender identity and expression, in public facilities such as bathrooms and locker rooms.
Transgender students and their parents also have demanded districtwide training to teach faculty and staff how to properly address and support transitioning individuals during such a trying stage in their lives.
The issue also captured the attention of state lawmakers, who recently passed anti-bullying legislation and considered a so-called “bathroom bill” to segregate transgender students into separate restrooms.
On the federal level, the U.S. Department of Education has threatened to pull funding from schools without nondiscrimination policies that protect transgender students.
But the district has yet to modify its policies, even after the much smaller Washoe County School District in February enacted a sweeping regulation to protect transitioning students.
Instead, the district has adopted a piecemeal approach that has families guessing what level of acceptance and assistance they will find at any given campus.
“Typically what we do is the parent approaches the school administration, and then we take care of that on a case-by-case basis and try to figure out what works best for that child with the parents advocating for that child,” said Carlos McDade, general counsel for the district.
“At this point in time,” he added, “we think our approach actually provides more protection and consideration for the family, because we tailor the solution for each child.”
A NONTRADITIONAL FOCUS
District officials have outlined several new initiatives that aim to increase sensitivity and understanding of transgender and gender-nonconforming students.
Starting in October, principals, assistant principals and deans from every school attended a series of training sessions on the topic. The district also holds five to seven training sessions each month for teachers on various issues, including transgender and gender nonconformity, and 24 schools this year participated in Operation Respect, a three-year program that focuses on nontraditional families and students.
Nevertheless, McDade acknowledged the district has paid attention to the federal government’s recent moves and the regulation adopted in Washoe County.
In June 2014, his office circulated an internal draft of an administrative guidance that, among other things, proposed reporting bullying based on gender stereotypes, identity and expression; referring to all students by their preferred name and gender pronouns; allowing students to use the restroom that corresponds to their “sincerely held” gender identity; and avoiding using gender as a characteristic for division in sports, clubs and more.
No principals who reviewed the document offered any revisions or concerns. But McDade said the district chose not to formally introduce the guidance after state lawmakers introduced a bill in the current session that would have required students to use restrooms corresponding to their biological sex.
Although that legislation eventually failed, McDade declined to cite a specific timeline for introducing the guidance.
“I really don’t know,” he said, adding, “I don’t think we’re taking too long.
“We are a public entity. These things have to be worked out with all parents — not just those of transgender students.”
Whenever the district seeks public input on the administrative guidance, the debate likely won’t be a quiet one.
The sheer size of the district sometimes makes it difficult to reach a consensus across so many different communities, said Michael Green, a professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“If Boulder City had its own school district, where Boulder City people feel a certain way, it might or might not enact something Las Vegas or Henderson would,” Green said. “So, countywide, there are many political constituencies.
“And I’ll go out on this limb: Mormon politicians and educators have a great deal of influence in and on education here.”
While the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently has softened its tone on social issues like homosexuality, Green recalled the Mormon community’s activism when a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage appeared on Nevada ballots in 2000 and 2002.
He also pointed to Clark County’s growing Hispanic population, which tends to identify as Catholic, and the libertarian segment of the state that believes government should not dictate policy on issues like gender identity.
That mix of opinions in Southern Nevada may strike some observers as odd, Green said, especially considering the proximity of legal prostitution, the abundance of strip clubs and the sizable gay and lesbian community.
“Las Vegas and Southern Nevada would reasonably be expected to take the lead on issues like this,” Green said, “but the conservatism and family values that exist side by side with this image has worked against it.”
‘I’M A PERSON’
At a park in Henderson, Kristina slipped away from her mother to run through some sprinklers.
Hernandez watched her daughter with a smile, before mentioning how, before the transition, her former son used to suffer from extreme anxiety.
“Panic attacks, nightmares, you name it,” Hernandez said. “She would bite off the skin in her mouth (and) get these awful sores around her mouth.
“All of those symptoms disappeared overnight.”
So too did the confusion and depression that plagued Kristina during elementary school.
As she played with the hem of her floral print dress, the seventh-grader talked about that dark period of her childhood.
“I had no idea if I was gay or just a girl,” Kristina said. “Imagine for any kid not knowing that one main thing everyone pretty much knows: gender.
“I couldn’t figure out how to be myself.”
Now, Kristina feels comfortable in her own skin and clothes.
She also can confidently declare that she is not “weird” or, as some parents may worry, trying to sneak a look at girls in the restroom.
“I’m not just a word. I’m a person,” she said. “I’m a normal girl, not a man in a dress.
“I’m just Kristina.”
Contact Neal Morton at email@example.com or 702-383-0279. Find him on Twitter: @nealtmorton