School officials in Amherst, Oberlin, and Wellington say they’ll comply with a new federal bathroom and locker room policy for transgender students.
Transgender people identify or have physical characteristics opposite to the sex they were born as. The policy directive reminds school officials that they must treat transgender students as the sex they identify with including when it applies to bathrooms and locker rooms.
“A school may not require transgender students to use facilities inconsistent with their gender identity or to use individual-user facilities when other students are not required to do so,” said the May 13 directive from the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice. “A school may, however, make individual-user options available to all students who voluntarily seek additional privacy.”
Republican politicians like Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick urged Texas school officials to defy the directive and some parents in Georgia and Texas have protested it, the New York Times reported.
Directive critics say students should use bathrooms and locker rooms according to the sex they were born as and that the directive could cause predatory behavior and infringe on privacy.
“I believe it is the biggest issue facing families and schools in America since prayer was taken out of public schools,” Patrick said at a news conference. “Parents are not going to send their 14-year-old daughters into the shower or bathroom with 14-year-old boys. It’s not going to happen.”
Patrick called the directive blackmail since non-compliance could mean a loss of federal taxpayer money for schools.
However, district superintendents in Amherst, Oberlin, and Wellington said they don’t feel they’re being blackmailed.
“You have to meet all the needs of all the kids,” Wellington superintendent Dennis Mock said. “This falls under a new section of students that have a different lifestyle and who am I to judge?”
Amherst superintendent Steven Sayers and Steele High School principal Michael May said the directive is in line with the Amherst Schools’ policy of respecting all students. May said staffers work with transgender students and their parents to make them feel comfortable and safe.
“If a student wants to learn, they have to feel safe first. I know and I believe our students feel that way,” May said. “This is a pivotal time in their lives. Especially seventh and eighth grade and up through high school.”
Oberlin superintendent David Hall said some transgender students don’t want special accommodations while others do. He said transgender guidelines were provided to coaches and other staff at the start of the school year in August and included athletic participation and locker room rules.
Hall said the guidelines are part of the Oberlin Schools’ commitment to respecting diversity and there have been no complaints from parents. “It’s a very liberal-minded city (but) I’m sure we’ll open up discussions and dialogue if needed,” he said.
In a nation of some 315 million, transgender people comprise just 0.3 percent of the population, about 700,000, according to a 2011 estimate by the Williams Institute, a UCLA think tank specializing in gender issues.
The number of transgender students is also believed to be minuscule although there are no national estimates. However, a health survey last year in Dane County, Wisc., found about 1.5 percent of students identified themselves as transgender.
Ascertaining how many transgender students there are locally is difficult. Mock said he wasn’t aware of any Wellington students who identified themselves as transgender and Hall and May said they couldn’t say due to privacy regulations.
However, a report by Steele News Live, Steele high school’s student television station, said between eight and 10 students at Steele were transgender. The report featured a girl who recently began identifying herself as a boy.
Experts caution that some transgender students don’t identify themselves, fearing harassment. Between 50 and 54 percent of transgender and “gender non-conforming” people in a 2014 Williams Institute study said they were bullied at school. About 41 percent of respondents said they’d attempted suicide compared to just 4.6 percent of the overall U.S. population.
Given the high harassment and suicide rates, Nancy Boutilier, Oberlin High School’s Queers and Allies Club adviser, said the contention that transgender students want to prey on heterosexual students in bathrooms and locker rooms is a “fabricated fear.”
Many in states with non-discrimination bathroom laws agree, according to a report from Media Matters America, a media watchdog.
The report said administrators from 23 school districts and four universities with rules allowing transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice said there have been no abuses. Oberlin College, which wasn’t mentioned in the report, has a similar policy.
Boutilier, Oberlin Schools athletic director from 2006 to 2009, said transgender people have been forced to live in the shadows for decades due to harassment and stigma over their sexuality. She said they are far more likely to be assaulted in a bathroom than straight people because of their sexuality.
“Transgender people are the ones who are more vulnerable in our culture,” said Boutilier, an Oberlin College visiting assistant professor of rhetoric and composition who volunteers at the high school. “This is about making the world safer for transgender people and it does not put anybody else at new risk.”
Boutilier said there are approximately 15 members of the club, which formed in 2007 and meets weekly. She said members are dedicated to promoting bisexual, gay and transgender people’s history — she said it’s been marginalized in curriculums — and protecting their rights.
Club members were upset about the Republican-majority North Carolina legislature in March passing a law invalidating a Charlotte law allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of the sex they identified with, Boutilier said.
She praised President Barack Obama for speaking out in favor of transgender rights and said the bathroom debate is a ginned-up controversy that distracts from real problems.
“The violence against transgender people in our culture is much more upsetting to me and should be what government officials, ideally, should be addressing,” she said.
Evan Goodenow at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.