School Climate & Safety

Calif. Transgender-Student Law Takes Effect, Amid Recall Push

By Evie Blad — January 22, 2014 6 min read
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As California school districts implement a new law designed to accommodate transgender students, officials are reviewing petitions to determine if the law’s opponents collected enough valid signatures to ask voters to repeal the measure in November.

Known as AB 1266, the new law went into effect Jan. 1. It requires public schools to allow a transgender student to use restrooms, locker rooms, and other facilities that are consistent with his or her gender identity, which may not correspond with the gender listed on that student’s educational records. Schools are also required to allow students to participate in gender-segregated sports, classes, and activities that align with their gender identity.

The law comes at a time when schools around the country are working to address concerns raised by families of transgender students, who are asserting their gender identities at earlier ages, supporters say.

“Before this law, I didn’t want to go to school because I was treated like somebody that I wasn’t,” said Ashton Lee, a 16-year-old from Manteca, Calif., who was raised as a girl until he told his parents he identified as male a few years ago.

Supporters of the law say schools must work not to stigmatize students like Mr. Lee, who was placed in girls’ physical education classes. Sometimes the use of the wrong pronoun or being directed to the wrong bathroom can lead to bullying or even more physically harmful behaviors from peers, said Mr. Lee, who has testified before legislative committees in support of the law.

Transgender student Ashton Lee in his room at his family's home in Manteca, Calif.

Since the law passed, “I feel safe and happy at school,” he said.

For and Against

The law’s supporters say it gives educators a blueprint for assisting transgender students. Groups supporting the measure include the American Civil Liberties Union, the California Federation of Teachers, and the California State Parent Teacher Association.

Opponents of the bill, who are listed in legislative documents, included Concerned Women for America and the California Catholic Conference.

Privacy for All Students, a coalition of organizations that has petitioned to overturn AB 1266, has called the measure “an assault on privacy and safety of vulnerable children.”

“First, it’s an invasion of student privacy to open sensitive school facilities such as showers, restrooms, and locker rooms to students of the opposite sex,” the organization’s website says. “Further, the legislation is poorly drafted and flawed, a one-size-fits-all approach that contains no standards, guidelines, or rules.”

Without a legally prescribed method for educators to determine whether a student is legitimately transgender, students are likely to “game the system” and invoke it to use whatever school restroom they want, the law’s opponents say.

But the 640,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, which has had a policy for transgender students that is very similar to AB 1266 since 2005, has never had a problem with it, said Judy E. Chiasson, the district’s diversity program coordinator.

“Being transgender is not something that one does willy-nilly,” she said in an interview with Education Week. “If someone was going to try to declare themselves transgender just so they could sneak into the girls’ restroom for lecherous reasons, we would absolutely intervene.”

The district’s principals design accommodations for transgender students on a case-by-case basis, typically after meeting with their parents, said Ms. Chiasson, who said she assists with fewer than 10 consultations with transgender students in a year. The district doesn’t track how many students it accommodates under the rule, she said.

Many state athletics and activities associations, including California’s, already have regulations that allow transgender students to play on single-gender teams, regardless of the gender listed on their educational records, Ms. Chiasson said.

Setting a Clear Path

California’s new law merely clarifies what districts are obligated to do, Ms. Chiasson said.

“This law solves problems,” she said."It doesn’t create them.”

The California School Boards Association has released preliminary guidance to districts that encourages staff training about the law, campus discussions about transgender issues, and a system for meeting with students and, “if appropriate,” families before making accommodations.

Privacy for All Students, the opposition group, collected nearly 620,000 signatures in support of placing a repeal on the ballot. The California Secretary of State’s office reviewed a sample of those signatures and determined that not enough were valid to trigger a referendum, but a high enough percentage were valid to call for a full count. County clerks around the state now have until Feb. 24 to review every petition sheet to determine if the group collected a total of 504,760 valid signatures—the number required to temporarily suspend the law until voters can consider whether to repeal it or keep it in place in a November election, the agency said.

Supporters of the law say a repeal is unlikely, and they question whether a successful ballot initiative would really affect schools’ legal obligations to transgender students.

Transgender advocates have called for clearer federal guidance from the U.S. Department of Education on how federal Title IX nondiscrimination provisions apply to transgender and “gender nonconforming youth” in public schools. The agency has included transgender youth in guidance for addressing bullying.

In a statement, the federal agency’s office of civil rights said it has not issued any specific policy guidance on issues like school facilities and gender-segregated activities, but that it has worked to resolve complaints regarding transgender students, including a complaint filed and resolved in Arcadia, Calif., before the state’s new transgender law was enacted.

But most of the action surrounding the issue has been on a state level, transgender advocates said. Seventeen states, including California and the District of Columbia have more general laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity.

Around the Country

Many of those states also have regulations or agency-specific rules that apply to schools in a manner similar to AB 1266, said Michael D. Silverman, the executive director of the New York-based Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, a national organization.

“In most instances [when families complain of unfair treatment], we are able to work out a solution where the child is able to participate in school,” he said. “In the small number of cases where that can’t be done, we have pursued litigation. As with anything, litigation should be a last option.”

In June, the Colorado civil rights division ruled in favor of Coy Mathis, a 6-year-old transgender student who was born a boy and now identifies herself as a girl. The agency sided with Mathis’ parents, who complained that her elementary school, in Fountain, had violated her civil rights by barring her from the girls’ restroom.

Media coverage of cases like Mathis’ have encouraged more families to come forward and demand accommodations for their transgender children, Mr. Silverman said.

“As more students request equal rights, more school districts are going to take notice and determine how to meet them,” he said. “I think it’s important to acknowledge that people are, in fact, uncomfortable about issues around gender identity, in large part because they are not familiar with them. That said, we have to make sure that we meet the needs of all of our students in school.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 22, 2014 edition of Education Week as Calif. Transgender Law Takes Effect in Schools, Amid Efforts to Repeal It

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