At least once a day, Pam Retzlaff answered a call from parents concerned about her decision to allow a transgender student at Edgar Road Elementary School to use a bathroom different from his biological gender.
“It was hard in the beginning, very hard,” she said. “You can imagine my first open house. I had more parents in my office than ever before.”
It was new territory for Retzlaff, then principal of the school in Webster Groves, Missouri, a St. Louis suburb, but it was never a question of whether she would or wouldn’t open the bathroom.
And as time passed, the calls slowly began to subside, going from once a day, to once a week, to once a month.
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That was more than two years ago – a blip in the schoolwide effort to help the soon-to-be third-grader transition as seamlessly as possible from female to male – yet still no cohesive policy exists nationwide on the issue of bathroom access for transgender students.
Even before controversy erupted earlier this year over new state laws limiting transgender rights, or this month’s deadly mass shooting at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando, many schools across the country had taken proactive steps to make the school environment safer and more welcoming to transgender students.
Opponents of policies that accommodate the bathroom needs of transgender students have argued that it’s an issue of safety for non-transgender students.
In reality, however, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students face the greater risk of harassment and assault, especially transgender students, and supporters say the bathroom discussion should be focused on protecting their safety.
According to FBI statistics, more than 20 percent of reported hate crimes were attacks based on sexual orientation and gender identity – second only to race, and more than attacks based on religious bias.
Although some state attorneys general and legislators have taken the federal government to court over its directive instructing all public school districts to allow transgender students to use restrooms that match their gender identity, school districts in those very states have quietly dealt with the issue with relative ease.
And students, rather than state officials or school administrators, are often at the forefront in pushing for the change.
Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, a New York-based organization that supports LGBT-inclusive policies for teachers and students, said school leaders and students live with the issue and understand it better than elected officials do.
“If they were listening to local authorities,” she said, “they’d get out of the way.”
If (elected officials) were listening to local authorities, they’d get out of the way.
Eliza Byard, executive director, Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network
Atherton High School in Louisville, Kentucky, has had a policy in place for two years that allows transgender students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity, and Principal Thomas Aberli says there have been no problems.
“The most recent federal guidelines are aligned with what we’ve been doing for the past two years,” Aberli said in an interview.
Despite some concerns that permitting transgender students to use the appropriate bathroom might threaten the safety and privacy of other students, Aberli said that hasn’t happened at Atherton.
“We have several transgender students now,” he said. “It’s just kind of a non-issue.”
In March, Springfield Central High School in Massachusetts converted two single-user faculty bathrooms into two gender-neutral bathrooms, one each for faculty and students. Principal Thaddeus Tokarz said transgender students aren’t required to use it, though some choose to do so.
“I believe we make it a point to have them use the bathroom they feel most comfortable with,” Tokarz said.
The most recent federal guidelines are aligned with what we’ve been doing for the past two years.
Thomas Aberli, principal, Atherton High School, Louisville, Ky.
In Camas, Wash., across the Columbia River from Portland, Ore., Liberty Middle School Principal Marilyn Boerke said she was prepared for an onslaught of complaints from parents in the conservative district when the school adopted its policy in 2014, “but it just didn’t happen.”
The 770-student school allows its five or so transgender students to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. Only two parents objected, Boerke said.
In response, Boerke told those parents that if their children were uncomfortable sharing a restroom with a trans student, they could opt to use another.
“Part of that could be how our community at Liberty is really all about family,” she said. “We just don’t accept that kind of intolerance.”
14 Number of states, including Kentucky, suing the Obama administration over its guidance on the use of school bathrooms by transgender students
But the backlash is only beginning elsewhere.
In Texas, Lt. Gov Dan Patrick has demanded the resignation of Kent Scribner, Fort Worth’s school superintendent, over the district’s transgender-inclusive bathroom policy. Patrick also argued for its repeal, calling it “social engineering.”
Texas is leading a multistate lawsuit in federal court against the Obama administration’s policy.
In a Virginia case, a federal court agreed with the federal government and sided with a transgender student who challenged his school’s policy that forced him to a bathroom that does not match his gender identity.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Justice Department told schools across the country that Title IX of a 1972 federal education law protects transgender students from discrimination based on sex, including the use of bathrooms, locker rooms and showering facilities.
The department reminded schools that those that did not comply with Title IX requirements risked losing federal funds.
In a Virginia case, a federal court agreed with the federal government and sided with a transgender student who challenged his school’s policy that forces him to a bathroom that does not match his gender identity.
Nevertheless, Texas and 10 other states sued the Obama administration last month, with Mississippi, Kentucky and Kansas later joining the effort.
This month, the Kansas Board of Education voted unanimously to oppose the Obama administration’s policy, though the board will allow school districts to continue policies that accommodate transgender students.
According to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s 2013 School Climate Survey, transgender and gender-nonconforming students faced more hostility than lesbian, gay or bisexual students did.
The majority of students surveyed said they didn’t even harassment or assault to school officials because of doubt the staff would do anything about it or fear that it could make things worse.
Four in 10 said they felt unsafe at school because of their gender expression. About half reported being verbally harassed, and about 1 in 5 reported being physically assaulted.
The majority of students surveyed said they didn’t report the harassment or assault to school officials because of doubt the staff would do anything about it or fear that it could make things worse.
Some schools that have accommodated transgender students say the move has improved the learning environment.
“This was probably the best decision we made as a school all year,” said Kevin Biggs, principal of Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa.
Although he said students were always able to use the most appropriate bathroom for their needs, Biggs said a student visited him in November and explained that some transgender students didn’t feel comfortable using the bathrooms that were available.
The school created two “all-gender,” single-stall restrooms in February. Students can still choose what works best for them.
“Those little things make a huge difference in a student’s day; they’re distractions that can keep students from learning to their highest possible potential,” Biggs said. “We wanted to make that possible.”
The students wanted to have a voice, and they wanted to make a change, and they made a change.
Jose Lara, dean of students, Santee Education Complex, Los Angeles
Student Alonzo Hernandez, 16, helped kick-start the process of creating a multi-stalled gender-neutral bathroom at the Santee Education Complex, a high school in Los Angeles, where he is a junior.
Hernandez is in transition from female to male, and his effort was driven, in part, by his own discomfort in using the school’s existing bathrooms. He’d sometimes avoid going to the bathroom the whole day to avoid harassment.
“There’d be times when I would personally wait in the stall to make sure everyone in the bathroom was cleared out so I could come out of the stall,” he said in an interview.
The concerns weren’t unfounded. Jose Lara, dean of students and faculty adviser for the Los Angeles school’s gay-straight alliance, said the discussion generated a small but vocal protest.
“There were some protesters sending hate message to the students, telling them they are perverts, going to burn in hell, targeting the principal, saying he’s a pedophile,” Lara said.
But ultimately, students, teachers and parents embraced the plan.
“The students wanted to have a voice, and they wanted to make a change, and they made a change,” Lara said.