Forsyth County Schools officials said they will not change policies in response to the Trump administration’s move Wednesday to end federal protections relating to transgender students and bathrooms because they already follow federal law that prohibits discrimination based on sex.
The Justice and Education departments said in a letter being sent to school districts nationwide that the Obama-era guidance caused a “spike in lawsuits over how the guidance should be applied.”
Nixing the guidelines the Obama administration had put in place means it is now up to state and individual school districts to interpret federal anti-discrimination for whether students should have access to restrooms in accordance with their expressed gender identity and not just their biological sex.
“This is an issue best solved at the state and local level,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said. “Schools, communities and families can find – and in many cases have found – solutions that protect all students.”
Forysth County Schools Superintendent Jeff Bearden said the district “is and always has been fully committed to the education, safety and privacy adhering to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, “a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity.”
“Part of that commitment always has been addressing the unique needs of any individual student, including any student who may identify as transgender,” Bearden said. “This is best accomplished through a careful review of the individual student’s needs, any request for accommodation and the needs of the remaining students in the school.”
He said the district will continue to monitor the situation and “consider the guidance of its legal advisers, state and federal officials.”
Though the earlier directive carried no force of law, transgender rights advocates said it was necessary to protect students from discrimination. Opponents argued it was an example of federal overreach.
What is the federal guidance for schools?
About 150,000 young people – 0.7 percent of those between the ages of 13 and 17 – in the United States identify as transgender, according to a study by The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.
The Obama administration told public schools last May to grant bathroom access even if a student’s chosen gender identity isn’t the same as what’s in their record, based on its determination that Title IX also applies to gender identity.
The guidance was a warning that schools could lose funding if they did not comply with the administration’s interpretation of the law.
Thirteen states sued to challenge the directive.
Bearden said last May the district would wait for a legal ruling in Georgia before making any changes. Senators wrote a letter to Governor Nathan Deal calling for Georgia to join legal challenges to the directive.
Deal then asked State School Superintendent Richard Woods to “provide guidance” to school district.
Woods said he and the state Department of Education believe the directive “openly violates, misinterprets and moves to rewrite established U.S. law.”
What could happen now?
The change in position will have no immediate impact on schools, as a federal judge in Texas temporarily blocked the Obama guidance in August.
But it could have consequences for unresolved court cases dealing with Title IX.
They include a case set to be heard by the Supreme Court in March involving a transgender teen who was denied a choice of bathroom access in Virginia.
The high court could decide not to hear the case and direct lower courts to decide that question instead.
Similar lawsuits are still playing out across the country.
What may the change mean for schools and students?
Even without the guidelines, advocates say federal law will still prohibit discrimination against students based on their gender or sexual orientation. The ACLU said schools remain free to provide the same treatment to students even without guidance.
“To cloak this in federalism ignores the vital and historic role that federal law plays in ensuring that all children (including LGBT students) are able to attend school free from discrimination,” Vanita Gupta, who was head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division when the guidance was issued, said in a statement.
How do state laws view the issue?
Fifteen states have explicit protections for transgender students in their state laws, and many individual school districts in other states have adopted policies that cover such students on the basis of their gender identity, said Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign. In the states that protect transgender rights, the general approach is to let individuals decide for themselves their gender identity. That’s also how the Obama guidance viewed gender identity for students who are too young for reassignment surgery.
Just one state, North Carolina, has enacted a law restricting access to bathrooms in government-owned buildings to the sex that appears on a person’s birth certificate. But so far this year, lawmakers in more than 10 states are considering similar legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.