By Theresa D. McClellan
For the Fort Bend Star
When it comes to providing restroom facilities for transgender students, the top three independent school districts serving Fort Bend County say they shun discrimination but student safety is top priority.
Earlier this month the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice notified public school districts nationwide, in a letter, that they are obligated not to discriminate against transgender students. The May 13 document addressed to “Dear Colleague” states there have been increasing questions from parents, teachers, principals and school superintendents about civil rights protections for transgender students.
The Department of Education also issued a 25-page document giving examples of best practices from school districts nationwide.
The Fort Bend Star queried Fort Bend ISD, Lamar CISD and Stafford Municipal School District on their policies. All three districts had prepared statements and declined to say more. None could say how many students, staff or faculty are affected.
Title IX already prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs and activities operated by recipients of federal financial assistance. The federal letter explains that there are no new laws but the discrimination issue also includes transgender students. That prompted Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to claim during the GOP convention in Dallas that President Barack Obama was “blackmailing” schools by tying alleged discrimination to federal funding. Patrick told schools to ignore Obama.
The federal letter further states that transgender students could not be denied bathroom access or segregated and no student would be forced to provide documentation to prove their gender identity. It also made provisions for schools to offer facilities for students uncomfortable with the new guidelines.
“Because transgender students often are unable to obtain identification documents that reflect their gender identity (e.g. due to restrictions imposed by state or local law in their place of birth or residence) requiring students to produce such identification documents in order to treat them consistent with their gender identity may violate Title IX when doing so has the practical effect of limiting or denying students equal access to an educational program or activity,” the letter states.
In his message to the community, Fort Bend ISD Superintendent Charles Dupre addressed the issue on the district website.
“To be clear, our District does not and will not have an ‘open door’ policy that allows students to use the facilities of their choice,” Dupre stated. “Instead we have found it possible to successfully balance the rights of all students by having our campus administration work closely with transgender students and their families to accommodate special requests for access to facilities while respecting other students’ privacy.”
Dupre said they would keep doing what they have been doing.
“Because our existing policies and practices have served us well in meeting the needs of transgender students, we will continue to follow them,” Dupre said.
“The safety and well-being of every student is of paramount importance to us. I want to stress to our parents and community that we value each of our nearly 74,000 students and we are committed to ensuring they all feel welcome and safe in the Districts schools,” Dupre said.
The FBISD takes seriously bullying and harassment and at the start of each school year holds mandatory training on best practices to prevent bullying and harassment of any student for any reasons, he said.
“We are dedicated to providing our students an exemplary education in safe, nurturing environments that respect and protect the privacy and rights of ALL students,” Dupre said in a prepared statement.
The Lamar Consolidated Independent School District does not have a policy that specifically addresses restroom use by transgender students, said Mike Rockwood, executive director of community relations for Lamar.
“We have non-discrimination policies in place for all students and we make case-by-case decisions for each student based upon the situation,” he said. “Our campus administrators have traditionally worked closely with transgender students and their families to accommodate special requests for access to facilities while respecting other students’ privacy.”
Board policy addresses transgender issues without using the term transgender.
“Gender-based harassment includes physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct based on the student’s gender, the student’s expression of characteristics perceived as stereotypical for the student’s gender or the student’s failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity,” said Rockwood.
There are no plans to change current practices, he said.
In the Stafford Municipal School District everyone is committed to “following all rules and regulations in accordance with federal law,” said district spokesperson Michael Sudhalter.
“The Department of Education released its statement very recently, so our administration, legal counsel and Board of Trustees will confer on the best way to ensure that we respect students’ rights, while simultaneously adhering to our first priority, student safety.”
Most school schedules will end within a couple weeks. The lieutenant governor has said that time can be used to explore options since the loss of funding, if any, would not be immediate. In its 25-page report, the Department of Education addresses a concern about accessible locker rooms by showing that privacy cuts both ways. For example, in Washington State, any student who wants increased privacy should be provided access to an alternative restroom or changing area. The guidelines explain: “This allows students who may feel uncomfortable sharing the facility with the transgender student(s) the option to make use of a separate restroom and have their concerns addressed without stigmatizing any individual student.
The federal letter states there is an obligation to ensure non-discrimination. “As is consistently recognized in civil rights cases, the desire to accommodate other’s discomfort cannot justify a policy that singles out and disadvantages a particular class of students.”