Last week at South Glens Falls High School in New York state, two transgender students were allegedly kicked off a school bus by its driver because they respectfully refused to sit on the side the driver had designated the “girls’ side.” The school district has taken prompt action in support of the students — said Superintendent of Schools Michael Patton, Ed.D in a statement, “We do not tolerate any form of discrimination against our students. All students need to feel safe and supported when they are in our classrooms, on our school property or riding in our school buses” — but the incident itself is a reminder of exactly how far we still have to go for trans rights.
On Wednesday, Sept. 20, the driver of an after-school activity bus at South Glens Falls High allegedly ordered students boarding the bus to sit on different sides according to gender: Girls on the right, boys on the left. When two students, who according to the Post Star identify as trans non-binary, sat on the left side, the driver allegedly told them to move to the right. They declined, at which point the driver allegedly issued an ultimatum: They were either to move, or to get off the bus.
A video taken by a student on a cell phone documented the events that followed. In the video, a friend of the students told the driver he was discriminating against students based on their gender identity; other students on the bus also made supporting comments, saying, “That’s not right” and “What about what they want?” This last comment was in direct response to the driver, who at one point can be heard saying, “I’m not moving the bus until I get what I want.” Eventually the driver said, “Give me your names and I’ll have your parents called and they can come get you. Let’s go,” after which the student got off the bus. The driver then asked the rest of the bus, “Anybody else?"
According to the school district, the students found a school administrator soon after getting off the bus and described what had happened. Their parents were called, and they were able to get home on a different bus. Additionally, students who had been on the bus when the incident occurred used the school’s anonymous tip line to tell administrators about it.
“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,” one of the students who was forced off the bus, Leo Washington, said to the Post Star.
The second student, Aaren Layla Sweenor, also faced being outed by the incident. “It was very scary for me,” they said to ABC News 10. “I was out to the school, but not to any family members.” Additionally, said Sweenor to the Post Star, “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. 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.” They added, “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.”
The South Glens Falls school district agrees; their response has been supportive of the students. It’s notable, for example, that in the report on the incident, the school district’s website notes that the students had “every right” to refuse to change sides.
“We do not tolerate any form of discrimination against our students,” said Superintendent Patton in a statement. “All students need to feel safe and supported when they are in our classrooms, on our school property or riding in our school buses. We will continue to train and educate all of our students and adults about protecting the rights and needs of all students. We will continue to work hard in creating a supportive learning environment that is safe and free of any form of discrimination. I hope this unfortunate event can be used a learning experience for all.”
Indeed, Leo Washington told the Post Star, “Especially this year, they’ve been all about acceptance and nondiscrimination and different stuff like that,” adding, “Everyone in the school has always been welcoming about my gender situation.” Additionally, Lilly Wolfe, the student who called out the bus driver on his discriminatory actions in the cell phone video, said to the Times Union that the school is typically accepting. “But you know there's always those people who don't accept certain stuff and have different beliefs, but we can't do anything about them,” she said. “Nothing really like this has happened before as far as I've been in this school.”
The South Glens Falls school district is “working with the driver on how this situation could have been handled in a much more appropriate manner”; according to WRBG Albany, the driver is not currently behind the wheel and likely won't be for the near future. Additionally, although all district staff members completed New York State Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) training on Sept. 5, additional gender sensitivity training will be scheduled. The goal is to make sure the district “is creating a safe and supportive environment for all students.”
Said Sweenor to Spectrum News, “I’m not looking angrily to get the guy fired, even though the situation was pretty terrible. I want them to learn and understand what he’s doing, and to understand who trans people are and how to treat them.” Indeed, as they put it to ABC News 10, “I believe a lot of instances like this come from a place of ignorance”; the solution, therefore, is to educate.
Sweenor also hopes that something good can come out of the situation. “Some kids are going to see that, and they’re going to see that those feelings are valid, and that they’re not alone,” they said to ABC News10. And that’s an important point indeed.