Deciding which bathroom a transgender student will use has turned an extremely private matter into a public debate.
But it’s not one local school officials want to discuss publicly, or likely had to until recently.
On May 13, the U.S. Department of Education issued guidelines stating schools must allow transgender students access to facilities that are consistent with their gender identity. The school may make individual-user options (such as bathrooms) available to students but cannot require them to use them.
The guidelines have sent school boards scurrying to review their policies.
Strauss Esmay, a New Jersey consulting firm that develops policies for school districts, posted a notice on its website that its model policy on transgender students is consistent with the guidance and its more detailed option is aligned with the guidance. Both options say the district will comply with federal and state laws.
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The New Jersey School Boards Association also has a model policy districts can use as a template, and a spokeswoman said it is currently the most requested policy.
The Press of Atlantic City contacted all districts in Atlantic and Cape May counties asking whether they had a policy and whether the issue has come up. Only a handful replied, and those that did said they comply with federal Title IX requirements and have had no issues.
Upper Township updated its policy at the beginning of the school year and now has several “all gender” bathrooms.
“We changed some signage and made sure that if and when one of our students identifies as the other gender, we have the appropriate support systems in place,” Superintendent Vincent Palmieri said. “We are fortunate that our student body, as a whole, is very tolerant and recognizes the value of diversity. Our commitment to our students does not rely on gender, so for us, this is a nonissue.”
Still, some advocates are worried that policies are too vague or can have loopholes.
“I understand districts are saying they will deal with it on a case-by-case basis, because some students may prefer to use a single-stall private bathroom,” said Carol Watchler, a retired teacher who works with the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network in New Jersey. “But if they say they want to use the boy’s bathroom, the school must allow it, not may allow it.”
Allison Pennington, an attorney with the Transgender Law Center, said the guidelines have been helpful in providing “strong, unequivocal language” about a transgender student’s rights.
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The federal guidelines state that civil rights cases have ruled that “the desire to accommodate others’ discomfort cannot justify a policy that singles out and disadvantages a particular class of students.”
But those strong statements have also brought public attention to an issue that was largely operating under the radar in most school districts.
A transgender student policy was among 10 policies introduced by the Atlantic City school board Monday to no discussion or opposition. Copies of the policies were not provided to The Press despite multiple requests.
Some districts post their policies online, and those reviewed by The Press show that while schools are willing to accommodate transgender students, they also reserve the right to question whether the new identity is sincere.
Both the Folsom and Greater Egg Harbor Regional High School districts’ policies say they will accept a student’s assertion of his or her gender identity but are allowed to question it if they believe it is being asserted for some “improper” or “inappropriate” purpose.
Greater Egg Superintendent John Keenan said there have been no requests, but they will do what is fair and follows the law.
Mark Pino, a senior at Mainland Regional High School who is active in LGBT issues in South Jersey, said he thinks it is abhorent that any school district would impose restrictions on a student, and the current controversy is making transgender students feel unsafe.
He said he is glad the federal government is standing up for transgender students’ rights.
“It is inspiring,” he said. “Sometimes individual students don’t want to make waves.”
One who did was Rubin Smyers, who was a sophomore at the Ocean County Vocational School’s Performing Arts Academy in 2014 when he was told he could no longer use the boys’ bathroom but should use the unisex bathroom at the far end of the building, a major inconvenience that isolated him from his peers. In his junior year, he started a petition on Change.org and got more than 3,000 signatures and contact with Garden State Equality, which helped get the policy changed.
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Smyers gave a TEDx talk at Bergen Community College that is posted on YouTube. It tells of his years of feeling different and not really understanding why, being bullied, then coming across an article on a transgender person that suddenly made clear why he had always preferred to dress and look like a boy.
He says in his talk that he has been lucky to have a supportive family and friends, and that it was the school administration rather than the students, who knew him, who had a problem with him using the boys’ bathroom.
School officials could not be reached for comment.
Watchler said the current controversy is an opportunity for education. She said publications such as Schools in Transition can help school officials deal with situations that can come up, ranging from dressing for gym class to lining up students by sex.
“There’s a lot of education to do, and it helps all students in terms of teaching about respect,” she said.
Pino is helping to coordinate an LGBT conference for young people scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday at the Boys and Girls Club in Atlantic City that will feature speakers including Mayor Don Guardian. He said he wants to reach out to other young people and spread understanding.
“There is a lack of community for LGBT students in South Jersey,” he said. “I’m trying to foster a network.”