The Computer Glitch That Helped Create a Safer Space For All Kinds of Students

A New Student Request

Tisha Rinker kept fielding the same question from her colleagues in the Connections Academy virtual school network:

“What do we do with requests to change a student’s name in our educational management system (EMS)?”

It sounds awfully technical, an inquiry about establishing protocols inside an EMS Connections Academy uses to store important academic data.

“More and more students were asking to change their names,” Tisha says. “Most often, it was a transgender student.”

“We could easily change a student’s nickname in the system, but a change to a chosen name was a bigger challenge,” she says.

Nicknames did not appear in all places in the EMS. When students logged in, they were still seeing their legal name displayed.

“And we used that EMS to export essential information for state reporting of student information,” Tisha says.

“We needed to figure this out.”

Protecting the Student

Tisha is Director of Counseling at Connections Education. She and her colleagues convened a wide range of people to look for a solution.

“What would be our protocols for chosen first names?” Tisha says. “What are the protocols for retaining legal names and genders?”

“We also had to think about legal protocols—and who needed to be involved to make a change,” she says.

“Ultimately,” Tisha says, “we wanted to develop a substantive protocol that protected the student.”

‘We Can Do That’

Connections Academy now has a policy in place to handle change requests for use of chosen first names and genders.

This school year, Tisha says, about 50 students have asked for a change.

“We’ve tried to keep our teacher training very simple,” she says.

“Number one: we can support changes to chosen names and genders,” Tisha says, “and number two: we will make the changes for students once they’ve enrolled in one of our schools.”

Students also have federal civil rights.

“We tell our teachers that they have to get permission from students before sharing this information with other school staff, which is different from other student safety protocols,” she says.

Sharing Expertise

This spring, Tisha spoke about the new Connections protocols at the South by Southwest Education conference.

The session was titled “Transgender Student Rights in K-12 Education.”

Tisha was joined in Austin by Khoa Nguyen, who also works at Connections Academy and is on the Board of Governors for the Human Rights Campaign.

(Of the 1,300 proposals submitted to the conference by education professionals around the world, just 250 were accepted. Tisha and Khoa’s proposal, focused on inclusivity practices in online and brick and mortar schools, was one of them.)

“It’s so important for schools, teachers, and administrators,” Khoa says, “to think of safe, inclusive schools for all students—whether black or white, Muslim or Christian, gay or straight, transgender or cisgender.”

“We want to create a physically and emotionally safe space for all students to learn,” Tisha says.

“If that’s not happening,” she says, “let’s change it and make it so.”