Local school officials say that established practices for accommodating the needs of transgender students already comply with federal and state mandates — and that the ongoing controversy doesn’t reflect what’s actually going on in the schools.
“For years the school system has been dealing with student privacy and student respect,” said Dr. Travis Reeves, superintendent of Surry County Schools. “Transgender didn’t just arrive last week.”
North Carolina is entrenched in a fight with the Obama administration after state lawmakers in April passed House Bill 2, a controversial piece of legislation setting standards for public facilities in the state.
The state law requires persons to use the restroom that corresponds to their biological sex, as listed on their birth certificate.
The state and the U.S. Justice Department have filed lawsuits in the matter, the federal agency claiming that the law fails to ensure protections for transgender students under Titles VII and IX of the Civil Rights Act, compliance with which is required for federal funding.
While the Obama administration has stated it will not pull federal funding to the state’s public schools or universities until the matter is decided in court, more than $4.5 billion in federal funding is at risk.
On Friday, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education issued a “significant guidance” letter indicating that all public schools must allow students to use the restroom, locker room or other facility that coincides with the student’s gender identity.
“While the news media and commentators concentrate on the differences in the positions taken by state and federal governmental authorities regarding gender identity, it has been and remains the policy of the Surry County Schools to provide for all students a safe educational environment in which the rights of all students are protected,” Reeves said.
Reeves said the county schools work on a private, case-by-case basis to accommodate students, providing a private restroom when those particular situations arise.
“We’re going to protect our students,” he said. “What we’ve been doing has been working. I see no reason to change that.”
Don Martin, interim superintendent of Mount Airy City Schools, conveyed a similar perspective and said students who need it are accommodated with private restrooms in health rooms or other private restrooms.
“Many students go through school grappling with sexual-identity issues. Sometimes they are bullied,” Martin said.
“It’s the desire of the school system to work privately and individually to resolve those issues. That works well.”
The practice seems at odds with the language of the guidance letter, which states, “This means a school must not treat a transgender student differently from the way it treats other students of the same gender identity. … When a school provides sex-segregated activities and facilities, transgender students must be allowed to participate in such activities and access such facilities consistent with their gender identity.”
In a Monday meeting of the Surry County Board of Commissioners, Commissioner Larry Phillips offered a strongly worded resolution, proclaiming the county’s support of McCrory and the legislature for passing HB2.
It was passed unanimously, and copies will be sent to the governor, legislature and the other 99 county boards in the state.
“The president brought this debate and fight directly to Surry County,” said Phillips, referring to the guidelines issued Friday.
“Currently, our school systems permit a transgender student to use faculty or health restrooms. Friday’s directive, however, dismisses that current practice and forces our students to share restrooms, locker rooms and shower facilities on the basis of gender identity.”
However, while the letter has been described as a directive or an order, “ED and DOJ (the departments) have determined that this letter is significant guidance.”
According to the “Final Bulletin for Agency Good Guidance Practices,” by the Office of Management and Budget, included in the Federal Register Vol. 72, No. 16, a “significant guidance document” offers interpretation of existing law to provide the public clear notice of the line between impermissible and permissible conduct.
It reads, “Nothing in this Bulletin is intended to indicate that a guidance document can impose a legally binding requirement.”
The bulletin states that it “makes clear that the impacts of guidance often will be more indirect and attenuated than binding legislative rules.”
Reeves said Tuesday he had yet to officially receive the letter.
“The interpretation of Title IX is just that, an interpretation,” Reeves said.
Martin agreed that the controversy and media coverage have brought attention to a problem that was not necessarily a problem, and hasn’t done much to solve anything.
“I’m not sure it’s been productive for anyone,” he said.
Response from parents has been limited, Reeves said, indicating that his office had received one parent email and one parent phone call.
Though school principals or other administrators may have received more, “It’s not been significant,” he said.
“Our job as educators is not to get caught up in everything outside of education,” he said. “We can’t allow this to become a distraction for us.”
“I do think it’s important our parents know we’re doing everything we can to protect the privacy of our students,” Reeves said. “We’ll continue to do that.”
The city schools official said the hypothetical situation where transgender students are “clamoring to go into a particular restroom” doesn’t necessarily reflect how they are presented in reality, where he said those students typically prefer privacy.
“Where the rubber meets the road, it’s not quite as severe as the Office of Civil Rights and media portray with how things are going.”
Martin explained that “If the accommodations work, everyone is compliant both with the laws and people are comfortable and happy.”
“Will that work all the time? No,” he said. “That issue has been litigated in several jurisdictions,” but not, to his knowledge, locally or even in North Carolina.
“I’ve looked at several cases, though not all, and the ruling becomes what the student wants,” said Martin, adding that the U.S. Supreme Court will need to rule on a case before it’s clear to school administrators how to proceed.
“Honestly, this has not been an issue,” Reeve’s said. “Pending a resolution of the conflict in state and federal directives, school officials will continue to work with parents and students on an individual basis to ensure a safe educational environment in which all students’ rights of privacy and protection from harassment and discrimination are protected.”
Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.