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Bathrooms Bedevil School Districts

Jeffrey Beall via Flickr

While the bathroom has lately become the site of heated political debate, Florida’s school administrators are getting caught in the crossfire.  They’re facing opposition no matter what choice they make.

In Marion County last month, the school board took up and approved an emergency resolution restricting bathroom access based on birth-assigned sex. 

“I believe that the support for this board in this community—the majority support—is with you to say that facilities should be limited to people based on their birth gender,” Ocala resident Stephen Antoine assured the board at the meeting.

But numerous opponents spoke against approving the plan—including board chair Bobby James.

“We must ensure that any resolution we make does not violate the Title IX—act a law banning sexual discrimination in school,” James warned.  “As a school district receiving title funds we are under very strict and precise governing rules.”

“Well I think it would be devastating for any school district to lose any amount of federal funding,” American Civil Liberties Union attorney Daniel Tilley says.

He’s representing a Marion County student in a complaint filed with the Department of Education.  The student was suspended for using the men’s room—for the sake of clarity, he’s a transgender male.  But Tilley doesn’t believe the trans designation should be necessary.

“Even though his birth certificate still says female he’s male,” Tilley says, “and I say he’s a transgender male because that’s the characteristic that is drawing discrimination from school officials.”  

“But I don’t think you need the adjective in front of it,” Tilley continues, “he is a male even if other people might not recognize that.”

The ACLU’s action so far has been heavily-reliant on the U.S. Postal Service.  They’ve sent letters of complaint to the U.S. Education Department.  They’ve also sent letters to Florida’s governor, attorney general and education commissioner requesting they leave the matter to the feds—so far they have.   

“The Department of Education will be conducting an investigation,” Tilley says about next steps, “which if the school does not recognize his gender identity could lead to enforcement by the department.”

That is, the district could lose its federal funding. 

Meanwhile in Duval County, the school district has had anti-discrimination and equity policies in place for years.  But in the wake of an Obama administration directive on bathrooms, the interpretation of those policies is coming under fire.

“The Obama administration lacks credibility in a lot of areas and certainly that May 13 guidance letter and their interpretation of the law is one of those areas,” Jacksonville attorney Wes White says.

He’s representing a family who opposes allowing transgender students in the bathroom that corresponds with their identity.

“Well I think it’s about kids in general and whether they have a right to enjoy the same kind of educational environment that most of us grew up with,” White explains, “and that’s simply that there are boys bathrooms and there are girls bathrooms, and there are boys locker rooms and there are girls locker rooms.”

It’s no secret the bathroom has become a political flashpoint, and as it happens White is running for state attorney.  He’s not shy about the fact his bid played a role in taking the case, but his statements lack some of the vitriol present in other candidates’ rhetoric.

“These school systems have accommodated transgender individuals and that’s perfectly fine and that’s appropriate,” White says, “but that accommodation shouldn’t include carte blanche entry into a girl’s bathroom if you’re male—a biological male—or a girl’s changing room if you’re a biological male or vice versa.”

Tilley—and many supporters of LGBT rights—say the entire argument boils down to a misunderstanding of what equity in public accommodation actually means. 

“When people talk about boys pretending to be boys and going into the restroom with girls they’re talking about non transgender people doing something that is in fact unlawful even with these protections,” Tilley says.

But the dispute—heated by an ugly political season—shows no sign of cooling.  Despite the mercury rising, many students, teachers and administrators likely can’t wait for summer.