Can a Model Code of Ethics Guide Treatment of LGBTQ Students?

Can a Model Code of Ethics Guide Treatment of LGBTQ Students?

A Model Code of Ethics could help guide educational policy affecting transgender and other marginalized students.


Recently the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice jointly released guidelines they say will “help provide educators the information they need to ensure that all students, including transgender students, can attend school in an environment free from discrimination based on sex” (U.S. Department of Education, 2016).  The move was the most recent in a series of often vocal and contentious actions by school districts, universities, and states to address concerns regarding gender identification discrimination in U.S. schools. 

While politicians and educational leaders wrangle with legal stipulations, individual educators may look to codes of ethics to help frame formal policy and stimulate their own thinking.  Last spring, former University of Phoenix CPRE Chair Dr. Troy Hutchings and Dr. Ashley Norris, Program Dean for the College of Education, contributed to the development of a proposed Model Code of Ethics for Educators.  Created by the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification (NASDTEC), the code reflects awareness of and concern for issues affecting transgender students, as well as others who may identify as LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer).  This model is the most recent code drafted by any American educational organization and unique in its charge for educators to address “actual and perceived gender, gender expression, gender identity” and “sexual orientation.” The code also calls for American educators to “establish and maintain an environment that promotes the emotional, intellectual, physical, and sexual safety of all students.”  It charges teachers to respect “students by taking into account their age, gender, culture, setting and socioeconomic context” and communicate with students “in a clear, respectful, and culturally sensitive manner.”   

In the introduction to the AERA report LGBTQ Issues in Education, Wimberly cites the 2010 U.S. census estimate that “over 600,000 households are led by same-sex couples” (2015, p. 1).  He continues, “These changes in family demographics and structure bring LGBTQ issues to the forefront in our nation’s schools” (p. 1). He notes that various members of the school community, including teachers, administrators, students, and parents are either directly or indirectly affected by these concerns.  He observes, “The increased visibility of LGBTQ people in schools and in education is changing how we think about school curriculum issues, sexuality, definitions of family, and attitudes toward these issues” (p. 1).  He explains, “The term LGBTQ is often associated with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer individuals and their communities” (2015, p, 5). Concerns that he and other researchers cite include bullying, anxiety, depression, other mental health issues, poor grades, and a curriculum devoid of LGBTQ topics or positive role models (AERA, 2015).  In the same collection Blackburn and Pascoe argue, “We need to continue and extend rigorous research efforts to include intersectional identities, such as the ways that race, class, religion, nationality, and geography intersect with gender and sexuality.  We need to know how to make schools better for LGBTQ student” (2015, p. 99).

In his treatise Democracy and Education (1915) John Dewey observed, “A progressive society counts individual variations as precious, since it finds in them the means of its eown growth.   Hence a democratic society must, in consistency with its ideal, allow for intellectual freedom and the play of diverse gifts and interests in its educational measures” (p. 305). Dewey might not have anticipated the emergence of issues related to marginalized groups such as LGBTQ a century later.  Nonetheless, principles he espoused set conceptual groundwork for addressing these issues. 

Codes of ethics represent profound concepts that reach to the core of what we believe, both as professionals and as individuals. The careful consideration of a code generates several important questions:

  • To what extent is it necessary to address sexual orientation and gender identity in educator codes of ethics?
  • How can we as educators become more sensitive to and aware of our own prejudices and values? 
  • Can a discussion of these and other issues generate a better understanding of marginalized groups, elevate the discussion, and bring positive action?
  • How can we create a dialectic, a dialogue, to discuss and discover our own values and attitudes?
  • How can we apply these insights into practice with our own students?
  • How can we improve ethical training and awareness of prospective and current educators?
  • Can revealing overarching patterns and themes reflected at these broadest philosophical levels heighten awareness of these concepts for those who shape policy and develop ethical guidelines affecting k-12 education? 

Departments of Education and Justice Press Release

USDOE blog

Model Code of Ethics

American Educational Research Association. (2015). LGBTQ issues in education:  Advancing a research agenda.  Wimberly, G.L., ed.  Washington, DC:  AERA.

Blackburn, M & Pascoe, C.J. “K-12 students in schools.”  American Educational Research Association. (2015). LGBTQ issues in education: Advancing a research agenda.  Wimberly, G.L., ed.  Washington, DC:  AERA.

Dewey, J. (1916).  Democracy and education:  An introduction to the philosophy of Education.  New York:  The Free Press.

Van Nuland, S. & Khandelwal, B.P. (2006). Ethics in education:  The role of teacher codes. Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) International Institute for Educational Planning


Susan Maloney's picture Susan Maloney | July 11, 2017 5:42 pm MST

I teach adolescents in a Mental Hospital, specifically the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo, Colorado.  We often have transgender students and don't have a concrete ethical code on how to treat these students. One student had a court order decreeing that we call him by his female name and allow him to dress in his preferred style of gender dress.  As you can see by my previous sentence that I have a particular problem with pronouns when interacting or discussing my transgender students. This is further complicated in my mind due to the transition of my granddaughter from female to a male transgender. Her story follows.

My granddaughter is nine years old and has just finished the third grade making her transition to male at the beginning of that school year.  She/he attends a very progressive school district as they lost a lawsuit concerning a six year old transgender male to female and where she could go to the bathroom. I would like to be involved in any research that would address how the LGBTQ population is being treated during their educational years. Any advice you could give me would be appreciated.  

James Lane's picture James Lane | July 12, 2017 8:48 pm MST

Susan, Thank you so much for sharing your reflections and personal experiences.  You might also read Dr. Cheryl Burleigh's blog, "Embracing DIfference:  An Understanding of Transgender Issues of a High School Administrator."  In that piece Dr. Burleigh shares her experience as a high school adminstrator in working with a transgender student and her parents.  I will let her know of your interest.

As we know, this is an important issue.  I think it vital that individuals with direct knowledge share their stories, which I think is the power of qualitative research.  This is a research topic in which many members of the CPRE, as well as other research centers, believe to be important.  I am interested in initiating a project in this area.  As we move forward, we will certainly include you and keep you apprised. 


Susan Maloney's picture Susan Maloney | July 14, 2017 3:48 am MST

Thanks James, I will be sure to read Dr. Burleigh's blog as I am teaching high school students in a tough setting for them, a mental hospital.  They may come in with ideas from the moving "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" but they leave with a different viewpoing. (I hope). Thank you for including me in your group and please let me know how I can help in any direction.  

James Lane's picture James Lane | July 14, 2017 9:17 pm MST

Thanks, Susan.  You have a challenging and important job. I'm not sure I could do the work you do.   I hope you will write about your experiences.  Meanwhile, we will keep you in the loop with our work.

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