The federal notification to schools that discomfort doesn’t justify discrimination comes as many districts are tackling issues raised by and about transgender students.
The U.S. Departments of Justice and Education on Friday sent a letter to educators across the country that said: “A school may not require transgender students to use facilities inconsistent with their gender identity or to use individual-user facilities when other students are not required to do so. … As is consistently recognized in civil rights cases, the desire to accommodate others’ discomfort cannot justify a policy that singles out and disadvantages a particular class of students.”
Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, said he knows that some districts had already begun setting their own policies on the issue. “Everybody is trying to find the right pathway to make sure the students are safe and secure in their environment.”
In Pittsburgh, the nine-member school board is set to vote June 22 on a proposal that would permit students to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity. Modeled largely after a plan already in place at Brashear High School, the policy would give transgender students the right to be addressed by their preferred name and pronoun.
Devin Browne, a foreign language teacher and Gay Straight Alliance adviser who helped shepherd Brashear’s plan, praised the federal government’s move, but emphasized that simply having a policy does not mean it will be implemented well.
“I think the Obama administration is on the right side of history,” he said. “I wonder how the [U.S.] Department of Education is planning to support schools? That was the chatter this morning when we came in.”
Schools districts confused about how to proceed will soon get some assistance: The Pennsylvania Youth Congress plans to release a model policy, said executive director Jason Landau Goodman.
“We know a lot of districts want to do something right now,” he said. “We want to make sure we get [the model policy] in their hands as soon as possible.”
Dominic Pivovarnik, a senior at Brashear, said he saw a link to the directive online early Friday and was momentarily skeptical.
“I thought it was just click bait,” said the Banksville resident. “Then I clicked on it, and I read it, and I got really excited. … It’s really nice to have the president’s support.”
Mr. Pivovarnik — who began identifying publicly as male in December and is currently in transition — credited the school’s Gay Straight Alliance with helping to create a school community that started an early dialogue about the subject and embraced his run for prom king this year.
He and other students from the alliance spoke at a recent school board workshop on the transgender policy, and last fall, talked with middle-schoolers at Pittsburgh Schiller 6-8 about issues facing the LGBTQ community.
“Even before I identified as transgender, I felt like everyone deserves rights. I was taught everyone should have equal freedoms, and everyone should be treated the same.”
As expected, many conservatives criticized the letter.
Steve Miskin, spokesman for state House Republicans, said lawyers are looking at the federal guidance. But he said the directive is an example of overreach.
“It is wrong for the Obama administration to jump in and try to dictate law while the issue is going to be working its way through the courts,” he said.
The letter does not have the force of law, but schools that do not comply could face lawsuits or a loss of federal aid.
Gov. Tom Wolf issued a statement in support of the guidance through spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan, who said state agencies will offer school districts “resources and clarification.”
“But this issue is bigger than any one action at the federal level — in Pennsylvania, members of the LGBTQ community can be discriminated against in housing and employment, and we must end this, which is why non-discrimination legislation has the support of Republicans and Democrats alike,” Mr. Sheridan said.
The group Equality Pennsylvania, which advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents, called the federal letter groundbreaking.
“Transgender youth and all transgender people and their families deserve to be treated equally and to have safe and secure access to education,” the group’s executive director, Ted Martin, said in a statement. “This guidance has the potential to save the lives of students who are far too often excluded from being able to be their authentic selves at school creating extraordinary barriers in their path to success.”