Education

Maine High Court Backs Transgender Student on Restroom Choice

By Mark Walsh — January 30, 2014 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Maine’s highest court has ruled that a school district discriminated against a transgender student by barring her from the girls’ restroom in response to community pressure after school officials had earlier agreed it was in her best interest to allow her to use it.

The student identified in court papers as Susan Doe, who was born a boy but began to exhibit a female gender identity at age 2, “was treated differently from other students solely because of her status as a transgender girl,” the Maine Supreme Judicial Court said in its Jan. 30 decision in Doe v. Regional School Unit 26.

The court ruled 6-0 that the Maine Human Rights Act covers discrimination in access to public accommodations based on “sexual orientation,” which the court said covers gender identity, and thus a transgendered person has the right to use the restroom designated for the gender with which he or she identifies. One justice dissented on the issue of whether the school district had discriminated against the student.

Court papers say Susan Doe began to fully identify as female by 3rd grade at her elementary school in Orono, Maine. The choice of restroom wasn’t an issue because students had single-stall facilities available to them during 3rd and 4th grade.

During Susan’s 4th grade year, school officials in Regional School Unit 26 began developing a plan to address her gender identity and her transition to 5th grade, when students begin using larger communal bathrooms separated by gender. (The district called it a Section 504 plan, based on the Rehabiliation Act of 1973, though it acknowledge that was because of the process and not because it considered transgendered status a disability under the federal law.)

As she was entering 5th grade, Susan received a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, or psychological stress resulting from having a gender identity different from the one a child is born with. Susan’s 504 plan encouraged recognition of her identity as a female and it recommended she use the girls’ restroom.

Things started out smoothly in the fall of 2007, but soon there were two incidents in which male students followed Susan into the girls’ restroom, claiming they had the right to enter it, too. At least one of the boys acted on instructions from his grandfather, who objected to how the school was handling Susan’s transgender status.

As a result of the controversy, school officials reversed course and instructed Susan to use a unisex, single-stall staff bathroom. In December 2007, over the objections of Susan’s parents, they decided that that would prevail when the student entered middle school the next year.

The Doe family eventually moved to another part of the state. They filed a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission, which sided with them. A state trial court, though, ruled for RSU 26.

The Supreme Judicial Court said this case was its first opportunity to interpret the state’s human-rights law with respect to gender identity in schools.

“Particularly where young children are involved, it can be challenging for a school to strike the appropriate balance between maintaining order and ensuring that a transgender student’s individual rights are respected and protected,” Justice Warren M. Silver wrote for the court.

The court majority rejected the school district’s arguments that the human rights law was in tension with another state law requiring schools to provide sanitary restrooms “separated according to sex.”

The court said the school bathroom law “does not purport to establish guidelines for the use of school bathrooms” and “it certainly offers no guidance concerning how gender identity relates to the use of sex-separated facilities.”

The majority said its decision that the district discriminated against Susan was based significantly on her gender dysphoria diagnosis. “Our opinion must not be read to require schools to permit students casual access to any bathroom of their choice,” the court said.

In his dissent, Justice Andrew M. Mead said the school district was not guilty of discrimination because the state law on school bathrooms calls for segregating school bathrooms by sex in a way that supersedes the state human rights law.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP