The White House released guidance to public schools saying they must allow transgender students to use bathrooms that match their gender identity.
The guidelines issued Friday, don’t add requirements to current law, but say that schools are at risk of losing federal funds if they treat a transgender student differently from other students of the same gender identity.
The guidelines come while the federal government spars with North Carolina over laws barring transgender people from accessing bathrooms that don’t align with their biological sex.
Some Indiana school officials have already embraced the change, while others say single-user bathrooms are a better answer.
In Bloomington High School North, some of the bathrooms are gender neutral. A student’s gender when they’re taking care of business is no one else’s business, says Principal Jeff Henderson.
“We want to make sure that all of our schools are welcoming and safe environments for all of our students,” Henderson said.
While he says those new federal guidelines are nothing new at Bloomington North, he thinks they can start a conversation in the state.
“We’re hopeful here that the new guidance from the Obama administration will benefit our kids,” Henderson said.
The guidance from the Obama administration is just that – guidance. It basically says, “this is our interpretation of existing law.”
The federal guidelines make one thing clear – transgender students must be allowed to use bathrooms and locker rooms that match their current gender identity, if schools want to keep their federal funding. And schools can’t require transgender students to use individual facilities — otherwise they’re violating federal Title IX non-discrimination laws.
“Transgender women are women and transgender men are men and they should be allowed to use the facilities that correspond with their gender identity,” said Chris Paulsen, a spokesperson for Freedom Indiana.
The organization hopes to add gender identity sexual orientation to existing civil rights law right here in the state.
“This is one area where we definitely see schools leading the way,” Paulsen said.
But others say something else is happening in schools.
“I think it’s another example of using public schools to promote a political agenda,” said Zach Rozelle.
Rozelle is superintendent of Union County College Corner Joint School District, a rural school district that straddles the Indiana-Ohio border. He thinks it’s inappropriate to have transgender students in locker rooms that don’t align with their biological sex.
“And I don’t think that there’s anything particularly discriminatory about a single-user facility. I just don’t,” Rozelle said.
Still, Rozell says, the Union County schools will follow federal law.
Indianapolis Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, embraced the federal guidelines.
“Indianapolis Public Schools believes no student should feel unwelcome on their own campus; this philosophy was echoed by our national leaders in the U.S. Department of Education this week,” said Kristin Cutler, IPS spokesperson. “The wellbeing of our students is paramount, and IPS will certainly follow the guidance of our national and state leadership.”
Indiana religious groups are calling for people to contact local school boards and government to reject the federal guidance. Gov. Mike Pence, in a statement, said education should be 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, DC.,” Pence, said. “The federal government has no business getting involved in issues of this nature.”
Indiana University education professor Suzanne Eckes says the federal guidance is consistent with recent court decisions.
“Guidance like this coming from the U.S. Department of education, I believe, provides greater clarity for school leaders who are grappling with this issue,” Eckes said.
It’s an issue getting heightened attention, but nothing new to the state. The same week as these guidelines are released, New Albany schools in southern Indiana added protections for transgender students and staff to their school code.