Transgender student rights must be protected, White House tells school districts

U.S. Education Secretary John B. King Jr., accompanied by President Barack Obama, speaks in the State Dining Room of the White House in October 2015. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)
U.S. Education Secretary John B. King Jr., accompanied by President Barack Obama, speaks in the State Dining Room of the White House in October 2015. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File) AP

Transgender students on Friday got a huge boost of support when the Obama administration issued firm guidance that public schools must treat students in ways that match their gender identities: from using the bathroom, to changing in locker rooms and playing sports.

Otherwise, school districts could be at risk of losing federal money under rules, widely known as Title IX, that prohibit discrimination in educational programs based on sex.

“We must ensure that our young people know that whoever they are or wherever they come from, they have the opportunity to get a great education in an environment free from discrimination, harassment and violence,” U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. said in a statement.

The guidance was issued by the U.S. departments of Education and Justice. It comes in the middle of a highly politicized court fight between the Obama administration and North Carolina after that state passed a law banning transgender people from using the bathrooms of their choice.

School leaders in Miami-Dade and Broward counties said they already comply with federal requirements. Broward has been considered a leader in the way lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning students are treated. The district has a training program to teach school staff how to help LGBTQ students and make them feel safe.

“We have an obligation to make sure every student is safe and that they’re protected,” said Superintendent Robert Runcie.

People who work with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in South Florida said the Obama administration position sends a powerful message to students and families.

“Knowing what these young people have gone through, and that they’ve had to struggle and fight for the basics, and now to know that they have this institutional support from the top down? It means to them that they’re validated. It means that schools might truly be places where they can go to learn and grow and thrive and succeed,” said Robert Loupo, executive director of the non-profit Safe Schools South Florida.

But there was backlash in some states. In Texas, political leaders vowed to fight guidelines that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick criticized as “blackmail.” One Texas schools superintendent, Rodney Cavness of Port Neches-Groves, ripped the Obama administration and said the directive “is going straight to the paper shredder.”

“He ain’t my president and he can’t tell me what to do,” Cavness told a Texas TV station, 12News.

In Florida, where Republican leaders also have enthusiastically fought for conservative issues and decried federal overreach, there was little initial reaction.

The Florida Department of Education would only say that the federal guidance is under review. Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s office and Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi — who has sued the federal government over a number of issues, including immigration laws — were similarly muted.

“We are aware of the letter and are reviewing its implications in Florida,” Whitney Ray, a spokesman for Bondi’s office, wrote in an email.

“We’re looking into it,” Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said in an email.

The Florida Coalition of School Board Members, however, issued a statement condemning the directive as a violation of local control. The group is made up of several dozen conservative-minded school board members from across the state.

“President Obama is opening Pandora’s box in the ever-increasing, unconstitutional federal interference in local educational policy. We will continue to speak up for what we know is best for our communities and schools,” said Erika Donalds, FCSBM President.

The idea of allowing transgender people to use rest rooms where they feel most comfortable is disturbing to many and become a conservative police cause. They’ve been enthusiastically behind the North Carolina law barring transgender people from using bathrooms they see as appropriate to their sexual identity.

“You can be tolerant and accepting of the gay lifestyle and transgender people, but against a naked anatomical male standing in a shower in front of some teenage girl,” said James Bopp Jr., an Indiana attorney active in Republican party affairs. “That’s a privacy issue, not one of respect and tolerance.”

But transgender activists and supporters say North Carolina’s bathroom policy only adds to stresses already felt by trans students. They are especially vulnerable in schools, where they are less likely to graduate, more likely to be disciplined and earn lower grades than their peers. Some students already try to avoid the bathroom, even refusing to drink during the school day.

“It’s hard to focus on their education when their very basic needs of respect are denied to them,” said Alina Tello-Cordon, a therapist with Switchboard of Miami — a crisis hotline and service provider. “They just want to learn like other students do.”

In Miami-Dade, the district’s anti-bullying and anti-discrimination policy protects transgender students. In a statement, the Miami-Dade school district highlighted programs to educate school staff.

“We have provided training to school personnel regarding the rights of all students to ensure that our schools continue to be safe havens of hope and opportunity while protecting the privacy rights of all of our students,” the statement read.

But there is still work to be done, activists say.

Victor Lopez is a trans student at North Miami Beach Senior. On his first day of high school, Lopez marched into a counselor’s office and began to sob.

“I literally walked to the guidance counselor and said, listen I’m transgender … I want to feel safe,” said Lopez, a 17-year-old junior now.

That marked the beginning of a difficult transition. Lopez said students threw things at him. Others whispered: “That used to be a girl.” One teacher refused to address Lopez by male pronouns, and called his mother to complain Lopez was “confusing” his classmates. Lopez said it took a threat to sue the school to get things under control.

“It’s upsetting that schools are letting this happen,” he said.

Now Lopez considers himself an activist for trans youth. It will take more open conversations with his peers, and training for teachers to make school feel safe, he said.

“Once I tell people about the struggle I’ve been through since I was two [years old] … people realize how tough it is and change their mind,” he said.

This report was supplemented with information from the Associated Press. Miami Herald reporters Steve Rothaus and Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report, as well as David Lightman and Lesley Clark of the McClatchy Washington Bureau.

This story was corrected and updated to include a statement from the governor’s office.