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Principal Weighs In On Obama Directive On Transgender Bathrooms

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The Obama administration is sending guidance today to school districts across the country. It's telling schools that they should let transgender students use the bathrooms and locker rooms of the gender that they identify with. The letter's coming from the Department of Justice and the Department of Education. It says schools that don't accommodate transgender students are violating their Title IX rights.

Jayne Ellspermann is the principal of West Port High School in Ocala, Fla. She is also the president-elect of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. That group had asked the adminstration to clarify what schools' obligations are when it comes to the treatment of transgender students. Principal Ellspermann herself and the association are very much in favor of accommodating students. Her school district, however, is not. Welcome to the program.

JAYNE ELLSPERMANN: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Why did you all feel you needed guidance?

ELLSPERMANN: Well, we represent the school principals from throughout the country. Our students are mobile. They do move from state to state, from district to district, from school to school, and consistency is really important for all students.

MONTAGNE: Are students able to use the restroom of their choice in your school?

ELLSPERMANN: At this point in time, our school district has not come out in support of this. And we do not have a - we do not have a student right now that is making a specific request. So at this point in time, our school district does not - it does not stand in support of the - of this position.

MONTAGNE: Well, you said a moment ago that this really hasn't come up in your own school, your own high school, because there hasn't been a student who's asked for this.

ELLSPERMANN: Not since our district has come up with this policy. We have in the past and we were able to accommodate the students.

MONTAGNE: What was the student asking for, and what did you do?

ELLSPERMANN: Well, that particular student was very comfortable with a gender-neutral facility, and so we were able to make that accommodation.

MONTAGNE: What about students who are not comfortable with going into what would be a girls bathroom or boys bathroom - what about - they're uncomfortable with with encountering a transgender student - what about their comfort?

ELLSPERMANN: And that - and I believe that that's the - that's one of the discussions that we are - that we currently have to have within our schools because we have to be able to work with all of our students and make sure that - that they're all comfortable.

MONTAGNE: So you don't really have an answer for that - I mean, effectively, if this just all in flux, there's no real answer, it's right in the middle of just everybody's trying to figure it out?

ELLSPERMANN: I think so, and I think that we're at one of those places historically where we are dealing with how do we make the - how do we create a positive learning environment for all of our students? And this isn't the first time that we faced this in education.

One of the challenges that we have in working in schools is that we end up being that place where we confront social changes and we have to make those - we have to make sure that moving forward, when we make our policies, when we create the - what the future's going to look like in our country, that oftentimes begins in our schools. And that's where we are right now.

This is a new day, and I think for all schools the challenge for administrators, for teachers and for students is to ensure that every school - school climate is such that all students feel comfortable, they feel welcome and that we focus on our primary mission, which is helping our students develop themselves in order to become positive citizens within our communities.

MONTAGNE: Well, you just said it's a new day. Does that mean for you as a school principal and as a leader in the National Group of School Principals - National Association of Secondary School Principals - does that mean for you that this is not a question of if but when?

ELLSPERMANN: I think this is - it's not an if or when. It is now.

MONTAGNE: Jayne Ellspermann is the principal of West Port High School in Ocala, Fla. Thank you very much for joining us.

ELLSPERMANN: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: And she joined us by Skype. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.