How Schools Around The Country Are Treating Transgender Student Rights

May 13, 2016
Originally published on May 14, 2016 6:01 pm

In addition to the letter today to the nation's school districts urging them to protect the rights of transgender students, the Education Department provided a long report on states and districts it says are already doing so.

That list includes the nation's three largest school districts: New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. It also names plenty of smaller places, like Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District in Alaska, and Shorewood School District in Wisconsin. And while inclusion on the list doesn't mean those states and districts are doing everything the federal government now says they should, it does provide a snapshot of policies the department thinks are worth highlighting:

  • The LA Unified School District's policy declares that participation in sports "shall be facilitated" in a manner consistent with the student's gender identity.
  • Chicago says schools should convene an administrative support team to address each transgender student's individual needs and supports, a team that would include the principal, students and/or their parents or guardians.
  • The Federal Way School District in Washington State reminds school leaders: "Keep in mind that the meaning of gender conformity can vary from culture to culture, so these may not translate exactly to Western ideas of what it means to be transgender. Some of these identities include Hijra (South Asia), Fa'afafine (Samoa), Kathoey (Thailand), Travesti (South America), and Two-Spirit (Native American/First Nations)."

The other places with policies singled out in the report are: California; Colorado's Boulder Valley; the Washington, D.C.; Atherton High School, in Jefferson County, Ky.; Maryland; Massachusetts; Minneapolis; Kansas City, Mo.; Washoe County School District in Nevada; New York State; Oregon; Rhode Island; Washington State.

The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, or GLSEN, an advocacy group, also tracks which states have anti-bullying and anti-discrimination laws that specifically protect transgender students.

NPR Ed decided to take a look at the other side of the ledger as well — places that have seen legal challenges over this issue or that may have policies in conflict with the new guidance.

We talked to the American Civil Liberties Union, which has been defending transgender students all over the country, as well as GLSEN, for examples of ongoing and recent cases. Again, this is not a comprehensive list.

North Carolina would be at the top of that list, with its highly controversial law that requires people to use the bathroom that corresponds to the sex on their birth certificate. Similar "bathroom laws" are pending in Washington, Kansas, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky.

In Marion County, Fla., last month, the school board passed a "bathroom bill" resolution. On May 12, the ACLU filed a discrimination complaint alleging that a transgender student was suspended for using the male restroom.

Also on May 12, the Transgender Law Center filed a similar complaint against the Kenosha Unified School District in Wisconsin.

Gloucester County, Va., recently passed a similar resolution and is involved in ongoing litigation.

In 2013, in Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 in Illinois, a transgender girl filed a Title IX complaint for access to the girls' locker room. While settling the complaint and accommodating the student, the district decided against adopting a districtwide policy on transgender students' access to locker rooms or bathrooms. The district was sued this month by parents and students seeking to overturn the agreement and deny transgender student access to these facilities.

NPR Ed wants to know: What are your school district's policies on accommodating transgender students?

This story was reported by Anya Kamenetz for NPR Ed and by Gabrielle Emanuel for All Things Considered.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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American schools which receive federal funding cannot treat transgender students differently. That means everything from being able to use the bathroom of their choice to wearing what they want for a yearbook photo. The new directive from the Obama administration came at the end of a week which began with dueling lawsuits between the Justice Department and North Carolina.

The suits are over the state's law which limits the rights of transgender people, including which bathroom they can use. We begin our coverage of this story with Gabrielle Emanuel of the NPR Ed Team.

GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: The letter went out this morning to more than 13,000 school districts. All of them, it said, need to protect transgender students from discrimination. A transgender student wants to try out for the football team or the cheerleading squad - let them. A student wants to wear a tux to prom - go for it. And, yes, the bathroom question.

The administration says a good practice - let students choose the bathroom that fits their gender identity. There's also a provision that says any student concerned about privacy issues should have access to a separate restroom. And schools shouldn't require a doctor's note before making these accommodations.

The basis for all this, Title IX, which outlaws sex discrimination and, the administration is now arguing, covers gender identity. This is big news for states and school districts across the country.

FRANCISCO NEGRON: They're really in a pickle.

EMANUEL: Francisco Negron is the general counsel for the National School Boards Association. He says some states, like California and Massachusetts, already have policies aligned with today's guideline. But other states, like North Carolina and Mississippi, do not currently make accommodations for transgender students.

NEGRON: Many schools are really being placed in an untenable position.

EMANUEL: Stuck, he says, between their own state policy and what the federal government is asking.

JOE DEFEO: We're not changing anything unless we hear an order from the court.

EMANUEL: That's Joe DeFeo. He's chairman of the school board in Horry County, S.C. He says his district currently deals with these issues on a case-by-case basis. He says he's heard from both transgender students and other students who don't want to share a bathroom.

DEFEO: To me, it's not a discrimination. It's a privacy issue.

EMANUEL: DeFeo also argues this should be a state or local issue. Brett Blanchard, the principal of Fair Haven Union High School in Vermont, says his school was already moving in that direction. And today's news gives them a nudge.

BRETT BLANCHARD: The immediate changes were actually just labeling - and this seems small - but labeling individual bathrooms, bathrooms - not girls or boys or anything.

EMANUEL: Blanchard says the football team is co-ed. There are some private showers, and by the fall, they'll have private changing areas in the locker rooms. He thinks there's more at stake here.

BLANCHARD: This topic extends way beyond what would be labeled now the transgender issues. It happens to be what does equity looks? What does dignity - what does respect look like?

EMANUEL: That said, he worries the federal government pushing on this could make things worse.

BLANCHARD: As you read the media, you know, it's become a firestorm in some areas. So it actually might add greater controversy.

EMANUEL: Today's announcement was not a legal requirement. But the justice and education departments made clear that if schools don't comply, they could face lawsuits or the loss of federal funding. Gabrielle Emanuel, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.