Law & Courts

Feds Probing Transgender Policy, Alleged Assault

By Evie Blad — October 09, 2018 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights will investigate whether a Georgia school district created a “hostile environment for girls” when it implemented a policy that allows transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identities.

The investigation comes after a parent claimed their daughter was sexually assaulted in a girls’ restroom at a Decatur City elementary school “by a male student who identified as gender fluid,” according to a Sept. 14 letter from the federal agency to an attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian organization that has opposed transgender student policies and helped file the Georgia complaint.

The office for civil rights will investigate both the district’s policy and how officials handled the family’s sexual assault complaint.

The district responded in a statement that said it is “committed to supporting all students.”

“We are aware of the unfounded allegations made by the Alliance Defending Freedom,” the statement said. “We fully disagree with their characterization of the situation and are addressing it with the Office of Civil Rights.”

Hostile and Unsafe?

If the complaint is found to be valid, the investigation could trigger a dramatic shift for how transgender students are treated in public schools and set the stage for legal battles between the federal government—which currently takes no position on transgender student rights—and states that identify gender identity as a protected class in their own laws and policies.

A growing number of states have such nondiscrimination laws, which require schools to allow transgender students to use the restrooms and locker rooms of their choice. At issue in the complaint: Do such policies violate Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in schools, by creating a hostile and unsafe environment for girls?

The office for civil rights has some discretion in what complaints it investigates, taking several steps to determine if the complaint falls under applicable civil rights laws. An investigation does not imply that the agency has determined the complaint has merit, the letter said.

One of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ first official actions was to rescind Obama-era guidance, issued in 2016, that said public schools must allow transgender students to use the restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity, or risk a federal civil rights investigation. Citing growing court precedent, that guidance argued that Title IX applies to gender identity, rather than sex. In rescinding the guidance, DeVos and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions took no position on the issue, leaving it to states and districts to interpret federal law.

Advocates for transgender students argue that allowing them access to school facilities that match their gender identity is an issue of basic dignity. In state-level hearings over possible school restrictions, mothers of some transgender students said their children had grown dehydrated when they refused to drink water at school to avoid the need to use restrooms where they felt unsafe.

Several federal judges have sided with transgender students in lawsuits over the issue, citing Title IX and the equal protection clause to the U.S. Constitution.

But opponents of providing such access argue that it violates the privacy rights of other students and creates potential safety risks if, for example, boys use them as an excuse to use girls’ facilities.

“This situation was both deeply tragic and avoidable,” Alliance Defending Freedom Attorney Christiana Holcomb said in a statement.

“Schools have a duty to protect the privacy and safety of all students and Decatur Schools clearly failed this young girl. The current approach that many schools are taking of passing these transgender bathroom policies isn’t working; they fail to provide basic privacy or ensure the safety of all students.”

Advocates for transgender students pushed back. Schools have accommodated transgender students without problems for years, they said.

“Every allegation of sexual assault must be taken seriously, and each deserves a full, thorough investigation that respects the rights and privacy of survivors,” the National Center for Transgender Equality said in a statement. “We are deeply concerned, however, that the Department of Education will inject politics and ideology into its investigation of the school’s handling of this incident,” the center’s statement said. “We know that policies affirming the rights of transgender students do not increase the safety risks for any child.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 10, 2018 edition of Education Week as Feds Probing Transgender Policy, Alleged Assault

Events

Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Chronic Teacher Shortage: Where Do We Go From Here?  
Join Peter DeWitt, Michael Fullan, and guests for expert insights into finding solutions for the teacher shortage.
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
Science Webinar
Close the Gender Gap: Getting Girls Excited about STEM
Join female STEM leaders as they discuss the importance of early cheerleaders, real life role models, and female networks of support.
Content provided by Logitech
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
Student Achievement Webinar
Mission Possible: Saving Time While Improving Student Outcomes
Learn how district leaders are maximizing instructional time and finding the best resources for student success through their MTSS framework.
Content provided by Panorama Education

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

Law & Courts Some Schools Will Get Money From Opioid Settlements—But It Won't Be Easy
Conflicts and unanswered questions stymie schools' efforts to secure a share of recent legal settlements from opioid makers.
6 min read
Pills of the painkiller hydrocodone at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt., on Feb. 19, 2013.
In this 2013 file photo, hydrocodone pills—an opioid—are seen at a Vermont pharmacy. School districts are arguing that the nation's opioid crisis has directly affected them through increased costs for special education and overdose-prevention efforts.
Toby Talbot/AP
Law & Courts Supreme Court Asks for Biden Administration's Views on Legal Status of Charter Schools
Stemming from a suit over a North Carolina school's dress code, the issue is whether "public" charter schools act with government authority.
3 min read
Thunder storm sky over the United States Supreme Court building in Washington DC.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Law & Courts West Virginia Law Barring Transgender Girls From School Sports Upheld by Federal Judge
The decision is a turnabout for the judge, who cast doubt on the law in 2021 and issued an order allowing a transgender girl to compete.
4 min read
Judge gavel on law books with statue of justice and court government background. concept of law, justice, legal.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Law & Courts A Teacher Argued His MAGA Hat Was Protected Speech. Here's What a Federal Appeals Court Said
Did a principal violate a teacher's rights when she told him not to bring his Donald Trump-inspired hat to a racial-sensitivity training?
4 min read
Image of a gavel
iStock/Getty