Federal directive about school bathrooms raises plenty of concern, questions

Published 12:23 am Saturday, May 14, 2016

Public schools must permit transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their chosen gender identity, according to an Obama administration directive issued amid a court fight between the federal government and North Carolina.

The guidance from leaders at the departments of Education and Justice says public schools are obligated to treat transgender students in a way that matches their gender identity, even if their education records or identity documents indicate a different sex.

“There is no room in our schools for discrimination of any kind, including discrimination against transgender students on the basis of their sex,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement accompanying the directive, which is being sent to school districts Friday.

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Vicksburg Warren School District Board of Trustees President Bryan Pratt said locally, the issue is a little more complicated.

“The challenge we have is that we have a new state law that would seem, from what I’ve heard of the new executive order, to conflict with that,” he said. “We would have to be advised by our legal counsel what we are actually able to do or not do.”

As of now, Pratt said he is unaware of this being an applicable situation in the Vicksburg Warren School District, but added that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be in the future.

“We want all children to feel comfortable, transgender or any other child,” he said. “We want to do what’s best for all children and make sure all children feel safe.”

In issuing the guidance, the Obama administration is wading anew into a socially divisive debate it has bluntly cast in terms of civil rights. The Justice Department on Monday sued North Carolina over a bathroom access law that it said violates the rights of transgender people, a measure that Lynch likened to policies of racial segregation and efforts to deny gay couples the right to marry.

The guidance does not impose any new legal requirements. But officials say it’s meant to clarify expectations of school districts that receive funding from the federal government. Educators have been seeking guidance on how to comply with Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs and activities that receive federal funding, Education Secretary John B. King said in a statement.

Pratt said losing federal funding is not an option for the Vicksburg Warren School District.

“Mississippi is reliant upon federal funding,” he said. “Mississippi is addicted to federal funding; there’s not a state in the union that gets more funding.”

Under the guidance, schools are told that they must treat transgender students according to their chosen gender identity as soon as a parent or guardian notifies the district that that identity “differs from previous representations or records.”

“We must ensure that our young people know that whoever they are or wherever they come from, they have the opportunity to get a great education in an environment free from discrimination, harassment and violence,” King said.

There is no obligation for a student to present a specific medical diagnosis or identification documents that reflect his or her gender identity, and equal access must be given to transgender students even in instances when it makes others uncomfortable, according to the directive.

“As is consistently recognized in civil rights cases, the desire to accommodate others’ discomfort cannot justify a policy that singles out and disadvantages a particular class of students,” the guidance says.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.