Equity & Diversity

Transgender Student Policies Spark Protests in Missouri District

By Evie Blad — September 02, 2015 3 min read
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A Missouri district’s decision to allow a transgender student to use girls’ bathrooms and locker rooms has sparked protests from students and parents.

Lila Perry, 17, was born male but began publicly identifying as female in February, The New York Times reports. School leaders in Hillsboro, Mo., cleared her to use girls’ facilities at the beginning of the school year.

Saying she was concerned for her safety, Perry spent two hours in a school counselor’s office Tuesday as more than 100 of her classmates walked out of class to protest outside of her school.

The district’s school board relocated a recent meeting to a gym to accommodate an overflow crowd of parents who turned out to discuss their concerns that allow Perry to use girls’ facilities would violate their children’s privacy.

Derrick Good, a lawyer who has two daughters in the district, told The New York Times that he wants students to use gender-neutral facilities or to use facilities that match their biological sex, a view shared by many parent protestors.

“My goal is for the district and parents to have a policy discussion,” Good said, according to the Times.

The discussions highlight the tensions school districts face as they work to accommodate transgender students, particularly in areas without established policies. Although transgender students represent a very small portion of the population, advocates say social acceptance is causing many to “come out” and transition earlier. And it’s clear that there’s great interest in what this means for schools. Posts about transgender students are frequently highly searched on Rules for Engagement.

The U.S. Department of Education and the Justice Department have both argued in court filings that schools are obligated under Title IX to protect transgender students from harassment. But transgender student advocates have said the agencies need to issue clear, accessible civil rights guidance that addresses how districts should handle issues like restrooms, single-gender sports teams.

“We have tried to be as clear as we can,” about schools’ obligations to transgender students under the civil rights law, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said when I asked him about in in April. He added, “I think my short, non-legal, non-technical answer is that we need to do everything in schools to help children to feel safe, to feel supported, to feel comfortable.”

From a blog post I wrote at the time:

While the Education Department hasn't issued a specific, concise package of detailed guidance on these issues, it has weighed in on them in other ways, such as court filings and civil rights agreements. In July 2013, for example, the Arcadia Unified School District in California agreed to a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice's civil rights division and the Education Department's office for civil rights following a complaint by a then-rising 9th grader who was born female but now identifies as a boy. The school had refused to let the student use the boys' restroom, among other things. After negotiations with the federal agencies, the district agreed to treat the student as it treats male students in regards to facilities and other issues. And, in perhaps the clearest statement on the issue yet, attorneys from the departments of justice and education filed a statement of interest in a federal court case in February, arguing that Title IX provides certain protections for transgender students in schools."

But not everyone agrees with the federal agencies’ legal interpretation. In August, a federal judge preliminarily ruled that a transgender student did not have a Title IX claim when his district would not let him use the boys bathroom.

Some federal lawmakers recently proposed including more explicit protections for LGBT students in a recent proposal to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, currently known as No Child Left Behind. Those efforts failed.

Some states have acted on their own. Many have passed rules regarding transgender students on single-gender sports teams. And California passed a law to accommodate transgender students in schools in 2013 even though many districts had already quietly changed rules on restrooms and locker rooms.

It makes sense that there would be some struggle as schools make these changes. Public opinion about sexual orientation and gender identity issues has shifted rapidly in recent years.

What do you think?

Further reading on transgender and LGBT student issues:

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.