MIDDLETOWN, N.J. — The last time Rachel Pepe was at school, she was known to her teachers and classmates as Brian.
Now, as the 13-year-old transitions her identity and gender with the support of her mother, Rachel may not be able to go back.
Her mother says an official at Thorne Middle School told her Rachel must come back school dressed as Brian and prepared to act like Brian. No accommodations would be made and no out-of-district educational options would be available.
The decision by the Thorne official is a violation of state and federal anti-discrimination laws, experts argue. Now, Middletown's school superintendent says his district will work with Rachel's family to reach a resolution.
"He was going to school last year as Brian," said Angela Peters, Rachel's mother, adding that her child developed stress-related seizures, depression and panic attacks. "How can I send her back as Rachel? And I am not sending her back as Brian because the depression will start again."
Rachel remained deeply isolated from the rest of the student body but still, her mother said, the children would bully her because she was so quiet.
"She would get off the bus and just cry," Peters said. "Then she would go to sleep for 17 or 20 hours and refuse to go back there."
Although Rachel wouldn't share her grief, "a mother knows when something was wrong."
Rachel knew, too.
"I sort of felt something was missing, that something was wrong," Rachel said of her gender identity.
"This is just recently I realized I wanted to be a girl," she said. As for her name, Rachel "just came to me. It just fits."
Peters said, however, the school was not willing to bend for Rachel.
A Thorne official told Peters the school was not equipped to handle Rachel, Peters said.
"I said, 'What about letting her go to the bathroom in the nurse's office?'" Peters said. That proposal was rejected.
"Peters said she was told school officials couldn't call her Rachel because her birth certificate says Brian. But Peters pointed out the school allows for nicknames to be used.
Peters also said she was told her child also would upset the boy-girl ratio in school and standardized tests require the legal name and gender.
According to Garden State Equality, a civil rights group, the transgender issue has come up a number of times at schools in New Jersey and elsewhere.
A 6-year-old transgender girl in Colorado was able to return to school after winning the right to use the girls' bathroom in a case fought by the New York-based Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund.
"Certainly the family has legal avenues if they wish to pursue them," said Michael Silverman of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund. "The family would have a strong case against discrimination."
District officials now say they are willing to work with the family to come up with a solution. Peters hopes there can be an outcome for her child.
Middletown Schools Superintendent William O. George addressed the case in general terms.
"We as a district want to do everything we can as a district," George said. "Every child is different and their education and social and emotional well being is my priority. We will work with them to find the appropriate placement."
"I support this without interviewing this child. It certainly is reasonable. Children with psycho-sexual issues often benefit from a fresh start at a new school," he said.
Rachel's mother admits she struggles sometimes with knowing what is the right thing to do. While Rachel is young, there will be little talk of hormone shots or surgery. But that is her child's future, if she wants it.
"This isn't a phase," Peters said. "She is not going to grow out of this."
Said Rachel: "There could be other kids scared out there, who live secretly at school and go home and be themselves." That's why she wants her story told. "If this helps one person, I can be happy about that, too."