State officials welcome feds’ reversal of transgender students rule

Arizona school officials welcomed the Trump administrion’s decision to reverse an Obama-era policy requiring equal access to facilities for transgender students, saying it should be a local decision. (Photo by Mike Gifford/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – Arizona officials Thursday welcomed the federal government’s reversal of an Obama administration rule that required equal access to school facilities for transgender students, arguing that communities are better able to handle the issue locally.

State advocates for transgender individuals were not immediately available for comment Thursday, but national groups worried that the Trump administration decision could have “horrible repercussions” on transgender students.

But educators in Arizona said they do not see a threat on the horizon.

“Our students have been very tolerant of their fellow students and we had worked with parents and had dealt with that issue,” said Mark Joraanstad, the executive director for Arizona School Administrators. “And students have worked it out in a variety of different ways depending on the preferences of various students.”

The controversy is over the ruling last May by departments of Justice and Education that Title IX, which bars federal funding to schools that discriminate based on gender, also covered transgender students – those who identify as a gender different than the one on their birth certificate.

In order to provide a “safe and nondiscriminatory environment for all students,” schools had to accommodate transgender students in a variety of areas, including whether they were referred to as “he” or “she,” but also in their access to locker rooms, bathrooms and most other sex-segregated environment. Schools that did not could lose federal funding, the departments said.

The rule sparked several legal challenges by school districts and advocates – including one that is scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court next month – who argued that the policy put non-transgender students at risk and infringed on their privacy. Arizona joined a lawsuit with 10 other states filed in federal court in Texas.

But the federal government reversed the policy Wednesday, saying in letters from Justice and Education that the original policy did not undergo the formal review and public comment required for such a “substantive” shift in policy.

The policy was withdrawn so the departments could “more completely consider” the issues involved, said the letters, which were quick to add that the move “does not leave students without protections from discrimination, bullying or harassment. All schools must ensure that all students, including LGBT students, are able to learn and thrive in a safe environment.”

That was little comfort for David Fishback of PFLAG, an adocacy group made up of family members lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals. He said the rules had worked to bar discrimination against transgender students.

“For the federal government to recognize this and encourage people to act humanely toward each other is a wonderful thing and it has really helped transgender students and their families,” Fishback said.

Arizona officials said they will work to protect all students, transgender and non, but insisted that those decision should be local and not an “inflexible,” one-size-fits-all federal mandate.

“Talking to superintendents and principals in our local public schools seems like something that they’re able to handle at the local level and we’re going to be able to continue to do that now,” said Gov. Doug Ducey, in Washington for a conference.

-Cronkite News video by Ziyi Zeng

The Arizona Department of Education, which joined the Texas lawsuit against the Obama rules, welcomed their reversal.

“Our top priority at the Arizona Department of Education is to ensure all students can attend school in a safe environment that is free from bullying and discrimination,” according to a statement released by the department Thursday. “Our districts and schools already have policies in place to ensure that. Those policies should be developed at the local level with input from each community.”

Educators in the state acknowledged that the Obama rules sparked a discussion that led to development of model language from the Arizona School Boards Association for member school districts to consider. Heidi Vega, a spokeswoman for the school boards association, said that any actions that arise as a result now would be more “embracing at the district level.”

“If anything, what some of the school districts wanted to do was be more descriptive in their policies and include gender identity,” Vega said.

The University of Arizona made its decision, announcing Thursday that it will continue to abide by the suggested guidance issued by the Obama administration and its own policy that allows individuals to use restrooms that correspond with their gender identity.

“We strive to ensure that everyone who comes to our campus feels safe, respected, and supported,” said a statement from the university’s Office of Institutional Equity.

Joraanstad said school districts had been dealing the issue of transgender students long before the Obama administration got involved, but that its issuance of guidance pushed the issue into a larger arena, including parents.

“They were instantly very upset with situations that they’ve never concerned themselves with before,” Joraanstad said. “Situations which had been ongoing and that had been handled but they never really had an awareness of it.”

But Fishback says the reversal is more than just parental concerns. He called it a “signal” that the Trump administration does not value transgender students or their struggles.

“Transgender children are all of our children,” Fishback said. “Our straight children are all of our children, our gay children are all our children, we are an American community.”

– Cronkite News reporters Anthony Marroquin and Ziyi Zeng contributed to this report.