Transgender Rights in Schools: Obama Administration Releases Guidance for Proper Action

Last week, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education unveiled “significant guidance” for public schools to follow in order to protect the civil rights of transgender students. This guidance initiative utilizes the past reforms of Title IX—an amendment which bars discrimination in all federally funded schools—to defend transgender liberties and justify any precautions that should be taken in schools to best ensure these liberties.

Amidst the recent controversy created by restrictive bathroom laws in North Carolina, this set of guidelines serves to take a stand and help clarify what should be done for students whose gender identity does not match their assigned sex.

“Educators want to do the right thing for students, and many have reached out to us for guidance on how to follow the law,” said Secretary of Education John King, Jr. in an official White House press release. “We must ensure that our young people know that whoever they are or wherever they come from, they have the opportunity to get a great education in an environment free from discrimination, harassment and violence.”

The guidance announces that for Title IX purposes, a student’s gender identity should be treated as their sex, according to the White House press release. It overarchingly states that students need only express to the school that they are transgender and wish to be respected as such; privacy and a comforting environment take precedent over documentation and formality. While not instituting any actual regulation or policy, the guidance showcases state examples of what the two departments found to be competent and effective civil rights initiatives. Among these initiatives are: how to best confirm a student’s gender transition, how to communicate transgender status to students’ parents, how to protect transgender privacy, and how to allow transgender students to fit into sex-segregated activities and facilities (such as athletics and restrooms) that align with their identity.

Among the state public school policies exemplified in the guidance release is the Massachusetts Guidance, released in 2013. The  Mass. Guidance, as expressed in the joint guidance, expresses the necessity for school communication with transgender students over how to best handle communication with parents, in order to protect student safety and privacy. The guidance delves further into the issue of privacy, stating that transgender students shouldn’t have their gender information collected unless absolutely necessary.

This acknowledgement comes on the heels of a bill passed by the Massachusetts Senate, which effectively prohibits the discrimination of transgender citizens in public locales.

The federal joint guidance also details how to efficiently curb and discipline the bullying of transgender students and how to handle complaints from the greater public. What the guidance says it cannot offer advice for is the handling of transgender students in single-sex classes and schools–as these are associated with private institutions–as well as fraternities and sororities.

The Massachusetts Trans Political Coalition, a Boston-based advocacy and education group for transgender issues, praised this move by the federal government. However, they feel more still needs to be done. “This is just a stepping stone,” said Mason Dunn, executive director of the coalition. “It’s part of the larger fight to change minds.”


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