School Districts Follow Different Tacks On Bathrooms

May 16, 2016

Credit Öljylautta via wikimedia commons

School boards across the state are grappling with how to handle transgender students and bathrooms.  One Central Florida County is heading to court after passing provisions limiting access based on the sex assigned at birth.

Some Florida school districts like Leon County’s have already altered nondiscrimination policies to give transgender and non-conforming students access to the restroom that corresponds with their gender identity.  Administrator Kathleen Rodgers says the district made the move last year after a statewide meeting.

“But I also knew that working within this particular arena came with its own language,” she goes on, “and we needed to train individuals within our district on this particular subject matter.”

Others, like Wakulla County are keeping their head down until tempers cool. 

“Our statement is the Wakulla School District will continue to ensure that every student is made to feel comfortable and safe as they attend school in our district,” Superintendent Robert Pearce says.

But Marion County is digging in its heels—passing a resolution that restricts restroom and locker room access to people assigned that sex at birth.  Board Vice chair Kelly King argues the move isn’t discriminatory because people uncomfortable in the public restroom can use a private one.

“We’re not up here trying to show favoritism or, discriminate—that’s the word I’m looking for—discriminate against anyone up here,” King says, “but we do want to ensure student safety and privacy for the entire student body.”

Board chair Bobby James pleaded to delay the vote in light of the risk to Marion County’s federal funding. 

The ayes took it 4-1. 

But there were objections.  Longtime Ocala resident Roxanne Manzone is a transgender woman who says the restriction hurts vulnerable students.

“You the board will fail to protect the safety of our transgender students by forcing them into bathrooms that do not match their gender appearance,” Manzone says, “And they will be subject to harassment, most certainly bullying, and possible physical violence.”

District Superintendent George Tomyn voices concerns as well.

“I do fear this will open the school board up to needless and costly litigation and will have negative impact on our students,” he says.

Turns out he had a point—a transgender male student has already been suspended.

“Well a student was suspended for using the appropriate restroom—the male restroom,” American Civil Liberties Union attorney Daniel Tilley says. 

“He is a male student and he was using a male restroom and was suspended for that,” Tilley goes on.  “And so we filed a Title IX complaint with U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights on his behalf.”

And he dismisses the school board’s argument about comparable facilities.

“Any alternate accommodation would be insufficient because it only serves to call out and stigmatize his transgender status,” Tilley argues. 

“That’s really the core of the issue—that they see a trans male as different from other males, and that they see trans women as different from other women.”

And Tilley’s timing is looking good.  His office sent the complaint just one day before a federal officials issued a letter on transgender students and bathrooms.