“Trey” is a 12-year-old boy who started middle school this year. Hard enough for anyone at an age when kids are trying to fit in.
But when surreptitious videos of him walking to and from school surfaced on TikTok, things went from terrifying to worse.
Trey – his family asked KCUR to change his name for this story – is transgender. His mother says his life has been “hell” since he began the year at Leawood Middle School.
“My kid tried to take his life last week,” Virginia Franzese said recently in the den of her Leawood home, where she can see the school out her back door. “He’s sitting in a mental institution and the doctors there don’t want him going back to school because it’s not safe for him.”
Trey is out of the hospital now, she said, but her family and other families with transitioning kids continue to face educational, bureaucratic and political minefields.
That’s a dangerous mix, said Dr. Michaela Wexler, a psychiatrist in Kansas City, Kansas, who specializes in LGBTQ youth.
“I think my population that I treat is very distressed currently. I have never in my five, six years that I’ve run this little practice … had such a high level of suicidality among my kids.”
Wexler traces some of that to the ever more toxic political rhetoric surrounding transgender issues. It’s already hard enough, she said, for kids trying to figure out who they are, where they will go to college, even if their parents will let them drive.
“Plus this extra thing, like people are making laws against me,” Wexler said.
That “extra thing” seems to be bubbling up everywhere these days.
“When you look at everything going on, you look at what’s going on in the Supreme Court, you look at what’s going on in the state legislature, you look at what’s going on at the school district level, it’s terrible,” Franzese said. “And it is just becoming more and more unsafe for Trey and kids like Trey.”
In Kansas, there are few places where trans issues are more contentious than in the Blue Valley School District, where Trey and his two siblings attend school.
School board member Jim McMullen ignited a firestorm in April when he tweeted that President Joe Biden was “embracing child abuse” when Biden called transgender Americans brave and said he had their backs. In another tweet last November, McMullen said “there are no 8-year-old transgender kids.”
McMullen was stripped of the board vice presidency in April. He remains a member of the board.
Before the board picked a new vice president in May, McMullen and the other members heard from Riley Long, a trans teacher at Leawood Middle School, the school Trey attends.
“Your gender ideology is a fake narrative used to justify discrimination,” Long told the board. “I desperately want to be my authentic self, but the opinions of others and the lack of support from the district makes me worry about exposing my true identity.”
Long’s testimony brought her to tears.
After the meeting, McMullen declined to answer questions and wouldn’t say whether he still believes young students can’t be transitioning.
“I’m trying to move on,” he told KCUR. “I don’t have any comment.”
Transgender issues are also shaping up to be front and center in Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s reelection campaign this year.
In an ad attacking Kelly’s veto of a trans athlete bill, the Republican Governors Association responded to a Kelly ad in which she claims to be middle of the road by asserting, “Laura Kelly is on the wrong side of the road. Kelly opposed common sense efforts to ban men from competing against girls in high school sports.”
Kelly’s veto was sustained by legislators, including a handful of Republicans. Democratic state Rep. Chuck Schmidt, a former school superintendent in Independence, Kansas, said the people calling for anti-trans legislation are a small but vocal group who pack legislative committee hearings and school board meetings.
“There are politicians that make this a hot-button issue,” Schmidt says. “They get fired up and come with guns blazing.”
Anti-trans legislation is also popping up on the federal level. U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall, a Kansas Republican, introduced a bill last year making it a federal crime for doctors to provide gender confirmation treatment to people under 18 and calling for a five-year prison sentence. The bill has yet to receive a committee hearing.
Trey’s story raises the question of whether the school and the Blue Valley district could do more to help kids who are transitioning.
The district “prohibits discrimination,” including discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Its website defines bullying and spells out how to report bullying, including via a hotline or a mobile app.
None of that, however, prevented Trey from being bullied — especially from the TikTok videos of him walking to school.
“No stalking, no harassment, no bullying, none of it actually fell neatly enough into any category,” Franzese said. Because it didn’t occur at school, the district said it couldn’t act.
Asked to comment, district spokesperson Kaci Brutto said in an email that the district couldn’t address the specific student situation but was committed “to provide safe and inclusive environments for all.”
“As a district, we want every student to learn in an environment that cultivates social awareness and fosters an appreciation for the growing diversity of our school communities,” Brutto said.
Franzese has asked for additional sensitivity training for students and staff. But that suggestion has been rebuffed, she said.
Riley Long told the board that the district needed to clarify its policies.
“We need clear policies created so that trans students and staff in this district are protected,” Long said. “Ignoring us and not including us in these policies is even worse than bullying.”
Schmidt said that while new policies are fine, students and staff need help changing how they think about LGBTQ people.
“Even if you make a policy, it’s not going to stop kids from being bullied,” he said.
Inoru Wade, executive director of the Midwest Rainbow Research Institute, said that while many area schools have LGBTQ-inclusive clubs, “it should come with something that allows the individual who has done the harm to learn.”
Back to school?
Franzese said Trey is doing better but didn’t return to school after being discharged from the hospital.
“Being out of school has been really good for him,” she said.
What Trey will do next is unclear. Franzese said her son could return to Leawood Middle School next year. The school will have a new principal then, so she’s hopeful change is in the offing.
But she said she might leave the Blue Valley District or even her adopted hometown of Kansas City altogether.
She said she loves it here, especially her neighborhood. But she said the fight with the school district and some of her neighbors has left her feeling betrayed.
“It’s like Kansas City went out and got drunk and cheated on me. And I’m upset about that,” she said.