Public schools must permit transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their chosen gender identity, according to an Obama administration directive issued amid a court fight between the federal government and North Carolina.
The guidance from leaders at the departments of Education and Justice said public schools are obligated to treat transgender students in a way that matches their gender identity, even if their education records or identity documents indicate a different sex.
"There is no room in our schools for discrimination of any kind, including discrimination against transgender students on the basis of their sex," Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement accompanying the directive, which is being sent to school districts Friday.
In issuing the guidance, the Obama administration is wading anew into a socially divisive debate 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 Lynch likened to policies of racial segregation and efforts to deny gay couples the right to marry.
The Obama administration's guidance does not impose any new legal requirements. But officials said it's meant to clarify expectations of school districts that receive funding from the federal government. Educators have been seeking guidance on how to comply with Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs and activities that receive federal funding, Education Secretary John B. King said in a statement.
"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," King said.
Under the guidance, schools are told that they must treat transgender students according to their chosen gender identity as soon as a parent or guardian notifies the district that that identity "differs from previous representations or records." There is no obligation for a student to present a specific medical diagnosis or identification documents that reflect his or her gender identity, and equal access must be given to transgender students even in instances when 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.
The administration is also releasing a separate 25-page document of questions and answers about best practices, including ways schools can make transgender students comfortable in the classroom and protect the privacy rights of all students in restrooms or locker rooms.
The move was cheered by Human Rights Campaign, a gay, lesbian and transgender civil rights organization, which called the guidelines "groundbreaking."
"This is a truly significant moment not only for transgender young people but for all young people, sending a message that every student deserves to be treated fairly and supported by their teachers and schools," HRC President Chad Griffin said in a statement.
The guidance comes days after the Justice Department and North Carolina filed dueling lawsuits over a new state law that said transgender people must use public bathrooms, showers and changing rooms that correspond to the sex on their birth certificate. The administration has said the law violates the Civil Rights Act.
Duval County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Nikolai Vitti released a statement Friday saying the district would comply with the federal requirements:
"The school district will continue to adhere to federal requirements per Title IX which includes complying with regulations related to gender definition, gender identities and use of school bathrooms. We have historically problem-solved and developed solutions for situations regarding gender identity concerns for our students and staff. As a district, we will continue to provide guidance, procedures and additional training for school officials to ensure we are meeting all federal guidelines."
Charlie Van Zant, the superintendent of Clay County Schools, announced Monday that biologically male and female students will be required to use their respective bathrooms and locker rooms -- opposing the directive.
Columbia County School Superintendent Terry Huddleston issued a statement Tuesday also opposing the directive.
In the statement, Huddlelston said, "it is my belief that the Federal Government significantly overstepped its boundaries" adding, "A person's issue birth certificate clearly establishes an individual's gender. Biologically male and femal students shall use their respective facilities."