Clark County schools waiting to comment on federal transgender requirement

As conservatives across the country threatened to rebel against a federal directive on bathroom access for transgender students, education officials in Nevada offered a muted response to the sweeping new rules.

The Clark County School District, noting it had yet to receive official notice from the Obama administration, cautiously reserved comment on the “guidance” requiring all public schools to allow transgender students to use the bathroom, locker room and other facilities consistent with their chosen gender identity.

That didn’t stop students at Las Vegas Academy from celebrating the news after class dismissed Friday.

“It’s a really good decision because we really shouldn’t be treated differently since we’re not different. We’re just in the wrong body,” said Matt Roshto, 15.

Roshto, a sophomore at LVA, transitioned from female to male last year and now uses the boys’ locker room. He recalled taking a recent trip with his family to New York, where he wasn’t permitted in a men’s room.

“Imagine yourself in my shoes,” Roshto said. “How would you feel being forced to use the bathroom, being a male and using the bathroom with a bunch of girls? It would be really awkward and weird.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Steve Canavero said the Nevada Department of Education needs more time to digest the guidance, which says all schools are obligated to treat transgender students as they see themselves regardless of education records or identity documents that indicate a different sex.

The “dear colleague letter,” released jointly by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, came with a threat to withhold federal funds from noncompliant schools, districts and states. Clark County gets about 10 percent of its funding from federal sources.

“This is new territory, I think, for all of us,” Canavero said. “We are literally just trying to unpack the implications.”

Gov. Brian Sandoval’s office even seemed dismissive of the new rules.

In a statement, Sandoval spokeswoman Mary St. Martin cited a state law that prohibits discrimination in public accommodations on the basis of gender identity or expression.

The law “already provides that individuals have equal access to public accommodation,” St. Martin said. “No change in policy is necessary, and the Obama administration has no need to have concerns about Nevada schools.”

WAIT AND SEE

In Clark County, district officials plan to wait to review the federal guidance to determine its impact.

The district said it continues to work with community members to “address this important issue.” The finance department is already studying the costs associated with including accommodations for transgender students in new school buildings and retrofitting older facilities.

“As of now, family bathrooms have been added to all the elementary (school) prototypes,” the district said, referring to the design of schools to be built over the coming decade.

Existing campuses also “have single-use restrooms that students are allowed to use at their request and at the discretion of the principal for a variety of reason,” the district added.

But Friday’s directive upends that approach. It says schools must allow transgender students access to all facilities and may not require transgender students to use individual-user facilities if the same requirement is not applied to other students. Schools, however, may make the single-use facilities available to any student who voluntarily seeks additional privacy, the guidance said.

A frequently cited paper published by the Williams Institute in 2011 estimated about 700,000 adults in the United States — 0.3 percent of the entire population — identify as transgender.

It’s unclear exactly how many transgender students attend the district, which serves roughly 320,000 students. The majority of them, under the new directive, could expect to encounter a transgender student in bathrooms and locker rooms should the district comply.

There is no obligation for a student to present a specific medical diagnosis or identification documents that reflect gender identity, and equal access must be given to transgender students even if it makes others uncomfortable, according to the directive.

“As is consistently recognized in civil rights cases, the desire to accommodate others’ discomfort cannot justify a policy that singles out and disadvantages a particular class of students,” the guidance said.

UNDER STUDY

In recent years, transgender rights advocates have pressured the district to formalize protection for transgender and transitioning students.

That prompted district officials in June 2014 to circulate an internal draft of their own administrative guidance. It proposed reported bullying based on gender stereotypes, identity and expression; referring to all students by their preferred name and gender pronouns; allowing students to use the restroom that corresponds to their “sincerely held” gender identity; and avoiding using gender as a characteristic for division in sports, clubs and more.

No school principals who reviewed the document offered any revisions or concerns. But the district chose not to formally introduce the guidance after state lawmakers last year introduced legislation that would have required students to use restrooms corresponding to their biological sex.

The effort failed, and in May 2015, Clark County School Board member Carolyn Edwards asked district officials to prepare a report on the district’s transgender policy. That report still has not been given to the School Board.

Edwards, who had not read the new guidance Friday, said Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky plans to submit some policy changes to trustees next month.

“It won’t be a standalone policy but incorporated into Safe and Respectful Learning Environment,” Edwards said, referencing an anti-bullying policy. “It will be incorporated into the place where we have other comments about discrimination, from what I understand.

“This Obama thing may change what we do. I don’t know,” she added.

STRONG REACTION

With Friday’s directive, the Obama administration wades into a socially divisive issue it has bluntly cast in terms of civil rights. The Justice Department on Monday sued North Carolina over a bathroom access law that it said violates the rights of transgender people, a measure that U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch likened to racial segregation laws and denial of same-sex marriage rights.

“There is no room in our schools for discrimination of any kind, including discrimination against transgender students on the basis of their sex,” Lynch said in a statement accompanying the directive.

Conservatives criticized that argument, defending North Carolina’s law and others like it as protection for women and girls from sexual predators. And politicians in Texas, Arkansas and Nevada vowed defiance, saying they were prepared to forfeit billions of dollars in federal aid rather than let the Obama administration dictate restroom policy for millions of students.

“This is a classic example of a dictatorship here,” said Nevada Assemblyman Ira Hansen, R-Sparks, who last year unsuccessfully pushed for a state law restricting restroom use to correspond with a student’s biological sex.

“You have a federal government mandating its decision for every school in the nation, without any change in current and existing laws,” he said. “If they’re right, they should have no problem allowing local school boards and parents make the decision. Why are they telling us what to do?”

Such a decision should not be left in local hands, countered Ann McGinley, a professor of law at the William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“It’s an absurd argument to say this is a local decision,” she said. “Maybe you locally decide how to comply with the (directive), but there’s nothing local about whether transgender students have equal rights.”

As for compliance, McGinley predicted a variety of decisions in schools and districts across the nation. Some will be considered legitimate, and others not so much, she said.

“We will have this patchwork of decisions all over the country, and ultimately it will end up going to the (U.S.) Supreme Court,” McGinley said. “There will also be plenty of school districts who just comply, and that will take the fear away for others.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Neal Morton at nmorton@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279. Find him on Twitter: @nealtmorton

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