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Schools to address transgender issues individually, LGBT groups disagree

Schools to address transgender issues individually, LGBT groups disagree

August 21st, 2016 by Shelby Rowe in Local News

Several dozen opponents of legislation permitting Missouri businesses to discriminate against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered individuals protest earlier this year at the state Capitol. Local school districts have decided to address the issue of transgender restrooms on a case-by-case basis despite guidelines from the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education to school administrators suggesting accommodations for transgender students.

Photo by Julie Smith /News Tribune.

Editors Note: This story has been modified to reflect the Missouri School Board Association's change in policy for accommodating transgender students. MSBA has two versions of its policy, but does not offer a recommendation for how districts should work with transgender students. 

 

School is back is session in Mid-Missouri, marking the first year public schools are federally ordered to allow transgender students to use the bathroom and locker room with which they identify.

Area school district officials say they plan to work with students and families on a case-by-case basis to come up with arrangements they feel comfortable with.

Following the president's executive order, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education issued guidelines in May to school administrators, and the Missouri School Boards Association released suggestions for accommodating transgender students.

The federal declaration says Title IX's prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sex also includes transgender students who identify with the gender opposite of their biological sex. The guideline is not enforceable by law but carries a threat of loss of federal funding or litigation.

The guideline says schools must provide safe and nondiscriminatory environments for all students and must allow transgender students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity — that includes providing single-user bathrooms for students who want more privacy. Districts cannot require transgender students to use a private restroom, according to the guideline.

MIssouri School Board Association acknowledged in their original recommendation, "Perhaps no issue is causing more concern among the school community than allowing transgender students to use the bathroom or locker rooms of the sex with which they identify."

MSBA originally recommended school districts allow transgender students use the bathroom they identify with, but swiftly changed its policy after the Virginia district court ruled against a transgender student. MSBA then offered two versions of its policy, but doesn't offer an explicit recommendation to school districts.

The Virginia court case has since been won by the transgender student at the federal level, has been appealed by that school district and is now waiting for a decision from the Supreme Court.  

Jefferson City Public Schools and the Blair Oaks School Board have expressed similar — but vague — approaches to the executive order. School officials say they will meet with transgender students and their families to provide accommodations to make the student feel comfortable.

In previous years, JCPS Superintendent Larry Linthacum said administrators have met with students and their guardians. In the past, students have used single-stall nurses' bathrooms. That solution worked for those students, Linthacum said.

Without a consultation, Linthacum said, students would not be able to use the bathroom opposite of their biological gender because administrators don't want "ornery" students pretending to be transgender so they could use the opposite bathroom.

Linthacum said the bottom line is they want all students to feel safe.

"We want to make sure we're not discriminating against kids," he said.

Similarly, Blair Oaks Superintendent Jim Jones said each student needs to be treated uniquely, which is why the schools would devise accommodations on a case-by-case basis.

"In most situations, a decision would be made after a consultation with parents and students," Jones said, which includes the use of locker rooms.

Both districts have been discussing the need for additional school buildings in their district. At this time, they're unsure whether they would include plans for gender-neutral bathrooms or locker rooms.

Linthacum said when the time comes to build additional schools, JCPS would consult with MSBA to decide whether gender-neutral bathrooms were necessary.

Cathy Serino, a member of the Jefferson City Transgender Support Group and a transgender advocate, said she attended school before transitioning from male to female, and during her school years, it wasn't acceptable for people to come out as transgender.

Now that society is more accepting of transgender people, students are transitioning at a younger age and expressing themselves with the gender they identify with by dressing in male or female clothing, she said. Serino believes if students are not allowed to use the bathrooms they identify with, it could be more traumatizing.

"I think they should be inclusive," she said. "When we use the restroom, we're just there to do the same thing everyone else is — relieve ourselves, wash our hands and leave."

Serino had the same viewpoint on locker rooms, which could be solved with privacy curtains.

"People are fear-mongering over this, and they're trying to create solutions for problems that don't exist when they're trying to keep us out of the bathroom," she said. "There is no issue legally. We've been here for years and years, and there's never been an issue. They're so worried about regulating us out of the bathroom, but the real issue is convicted pedophiles are still allowed to use public bathrooms. More politicians have been arrested doing inappropriate things in the bathroom than transgender people."

Steph Perkins, executive director of PROMO (Promoting Equality for all Missourians), shared a similar viewpoint. It's already illegal for someone to go into a bathroom and harm or harass another person, he said.

For a while, schools had a lot of success working with students on a case-by-case basis, and most of the time, the best scenario was to allow the student to use the bathroom corresponding with his or her gender identity, Perkins said.

Now, more schools are defaulting to the use of individual bathrooms in locked areas, such as the nurses' office or teachers' lounge. It might work well during the school day, Perkins said, but it limits the opportunity for extra-curricular activities because transgender students might not have access to a gender-neutral bathroom after school.

"Unfortunately, people still don't have a framework for who a transgender person is," he said. "Most families and individuals can say they know someone who is gay; not as many can say they know someone and love someone who is transgender. We're still working on educating people on who transgender people are."

For the last three years, the state Legislature has filed bills barring transgender people from using the bathroom they identify with, and it's likely there will be more during the next legislative session, he said.

Perkins said it's important to continue educating friends and family about how inclusive policies are positively affecting transgender Missourians.

Serino thinks districts' student bodies will hold them accountable for upholding the federal declaration. Students will have to speak out if schools aren't following protocol, and it will addressed by federal courts case by case, she said.