Gender identity issue still rare in Wyoming Valley school districts, officials say
From no incidents to discrete use of a nurse’s restroom to a first-grade boy wanting to wear a dress, area school administrators said they have limited student gender identity issues.
But the topic of restroom and locker room use — hitting national headlines thanks to a new federal “guidance” issued last week— was already on their radar.
“For us, it’s not a new topic,” said Dallas Superintendent Tom Duffy, echoing comments by other administrators. “We’ve been involved for months in workshops and discussions, putting in place provisions to address student needs.”
Duffy said the district has dealt with high school and middle school students who may have had identity or simple privacy issues, usually by arranging a place they can change or a restroom they could use in solitude.
“We have a few transgender students, so we’ve been very proactive,” said Wilkes-Barre Area Administrative and Student Services Director Rochelle Koury. “All psychologists and guidance counselors have received training. This became a hot topic for us probably a year ago. We foresaw this coming.”
The federal Department of Justice and Department of Education jointly issued “guidance” to, as the DOJ put it in a web posting, “help provide educators the information they need to ensure that all students, including transgender students, can attend school in an environment free from discrimination based on sex.”
Despite reports the guidance is an order, or that it mandates transgender restrooms, that is not the case. It does not hold the weight of law. Government agencies issue written guidance typically when questions arise on how best to comply with an existing law — in this case Title IX, passed in 1972 and best known for requiring equity in sports for men and women, though it touches on other gender issues.
The second paragraph of the guidance states it “does not add requirements to applicable law, but provides information and examples to inform recipients about how the departments evaluate whether covered entities are complying with their legal obligations.”
Failure to follow recommendations in such a guidance could result in loss of federal education money, or a lawsuit from the DOJ attempting to compel compliance. In fact, Pittston Area Superintendent Kevin Booth predicted the final outcome of the guidance will “come down to some court cases to establish what the law is.”
Booth said his district has had no real issues with gender identity, and those that did arise were handled with accommodations that satisfied all involved. There was one case that literally went away before much could be done.
“It came up in the beginning of this school year. It was a first-grade student,” Booth said of a student whose parents were both transgender. “At the end of kindergarten, the student asked if he could come in a dress and they wanted a name change. We were going through steps with them, but they have since moved out of the district.”
According to the guidance, a student or student’s parent or guardian need only notify a district school administrator “that the student will assert a gender identity that differs from previous representations or records,” and that no medical diagnosis or treatment is needed for the student to be “treated consistent with their gender identity.”
The guidance notes where Title IX applies in school situations regarding gender identity and where it does not. In most cases, including restrooms, locker rooms and overnight accommodations, the guidance notes a school may meet a student’s concerns with private accommodations.
That’s what area administrators said they are doing.”We have had some minor situations where students have asked to be able to use a restroom in the nurse’s office,” Wyoming Area Superintendent Janet Serino said.
Koury said students with gender identity issues at Wilkes-Barre Area have been comfortable using the locker room “that they’ve been biologically assigned,” and that other students have been accepting of such situations.
All those interviewed said their districts use a similar approach: Discuss the situation with student and parents, and come to an agreement everyone is comfortable with. They also said the issue is sure to be an evolving one, and they are working to comply with the guidance while respecting the rights and comfort of all students.
“This summer we’re taking five days when all of our administrators will meet,” Serino said, “We have a list of everything we need to talk about, and that is on it.”
“We are in the process of developing our own policy” on the matter, Koury said.
“We will follow the rules and make sure our kids feel comfortable,” Duffy said. “I’m not overly concerned about accommodating students with these needs.”
Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish