Schools’ restroom policy to remain for now

Don’t expect any change in Brown County Schools’ policy this school year regarding the use of restrooms by transgender students.

“I’d like to set everybody’s mind at ease that we’re going to kind of sit back, take a look at this and try to be very reasonable, I guess, about it,” Superintendent David Shaffer said.

Shaffer said he has heard from unhappy parents since a letter from the U.S. justice and education departments was sent to public schools May 13.

It tells public schools they should allow transgender students to use the bathrooms that match their gender identity, based on the right of all students to attend school in an environment free from discrimination based on sex.

It uses Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 as the reason, which required gender equality in every educational program that receives federal funding.

The new directive about the treatment of transgender students goes further than bathrooms.

It suggests that public schools should not segregate transgender students in any aspect of their education, including overnight field trips and athletics.

“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,” the letter from federal officials says.

The letter from federal officials also addressed the importance of maintaining school records related to a student’s transgender status as confidential.

The letter does not mandate any actions. It is considered guidance — though schools that do not abide could face a loss of federal aid, according to federal officials and the Associated Press.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence released a statement opposing the directive the same day it was sent out.

“I have long believed that education is a state and local function. Policies regarding the security and privacy of students in our schools should be in the hands of Hoosier parents and local schools, not bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.,” he said.

“I am confident that parents, teachers and administrators will continue to resolve these matters without federal mandates and in a manner that reflects the common sense and compassion of our state.”

Local policy now

Brown County Schools has included transgender students as a protected group for at least a year.However, what would happen under the district’s current policy is that the district would make arrangements for transgender-identity students to use separate facilities, Shaffer said.

Under the new directive, that would not be allowed.

A public school must allow transgender students to access facilities consistent with their gender identity — a person’s internal sense of gender, which may or may not match the person’s physical sex.

Parents have told Shaffer that they are concerned about “allowing students who identify with a different sexual identity to use restrooms with students of the physiological opposite sex,” he said.

“Concerns about student safety come into play in these instances. We are always concerned about the safety of all of our students and try to make that a priority in our enforcement of rules and policies,” Shaffer added.

In 2015, the school board decided to add “transgender identity” under “sex” as a protected class in the Nondiscrimination and Access to Equal Educational Opportunity policy. It was based on a policy update recommendation from NEOLA, a company that advises the school board.

“We felt that all students should be protected by policy language,” Shaffer said.

Shaffer discussed the new directive with principals and district directors May 18.

He said school principals have dealt with issues related to transgender students, such as desired name changes and “some negative interaction issues with other students.”

Incoming Superintendent Laura Hammack — who will start work July 1, after Shaffer retires — did not respond to a request for comment before press time.

“I kind of want to wait and see where the dust settles and what lawsuits there are and what attorneys who advise us would say to do,” Shaffer said.

Further considerations

When it decides to make any changes to current policies, the Brown County Schools Board of Trustees will have to look at equality in other aspects of the educational experience, too.

Besides restroom use, the directive regarding the equal treatment of transgender students also addresses sex-segregated activities and facilities like locker rooms and athletics.

School corporations may not adopt athletic requirements that “rely on overly broad generalizations” about the differences between transgender students and other students of the same gender identity, or others’ discomfort with transgender students,” the letter from federal officials to public schools said.

But for athletics, the existing Title IX gender-equality rules — which were instituted in 1972 — would not prohibit “age-appropriate, tailored requirements based on sound, current and research-based medical knowledge about the impact of the students’ participation on the competitive fairness or physical safety of the sport,” the letter said.

The federal agencies also sent to public school leaders a 25-page document describing policies some schools have in place to deal with transgender issues around the country, such as installing privacy curtains or allowing students to change in bathroom stalls in locker rooms.