Idaho Reacts To New Federal Guidelines About Transgender Students

May 13, 2016

Credit Wayan Vota / Flickr Creative Commons

The Obama administration Friday issued new guidelines about transgender students in the nation’s schools. A letter sent to schools firms up already existing policies that the Title IX law banning gender discrimination in schools taking federal money also applies to transgender students in K-12 schools.

The new guidelines say transgender students should be allowed to use bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity and should not be required to use separate facilities. The administration says schools should not require documentation such as doctor’s notes that a student is transitioning and that schools should treat students in ways that are consistent with their gender identities like using the students’ preferred name and pronouns.

Dan Hollar, a spokesman for the Boise School district, says the district’s own policies are already in line with the new guidelines. Hollar says Boise schools have experience with transgender students.

“I think at this point it’s really not much of an issue in the district,” Hollar says. “And I think more than anything else we have a community that’s supportive of our students. And we’re here to focus on providing the best opportunity for each student to learn in a safe and conducive environment.”

The West Ada District has not responded to requests for comment. A Nampa School District spokesperson says the district does not have a policy about transgender students but deals with issues on a case by case basis.

The Idaho School Boards Association (ISBA) last year recommended school districts adopt a non-discrimination policy, and provided a model. An ISBA spokesperson says its policy and legal experts are reviewing the new guidelines but they believe the ISBA model policy complies fully.

The Associated Press last year reported that very few school districts had adopted the ISBA policy. But the Twin Falls School District did create a policy based on the recommendations. And it appears to comply with all of the Obama administration guidelines. Superintendent Wiley Dobbs says they were motivated by a desire to avoid future legal problems and remain in compliance with federal requirements that are linked to funding. But also, he says they want their schools to be safe places for all students.   

“We’ve had a couple situations where we’ve had transgender students attending our school district,” Dobbs says. “And in both these situations the parents were fabulous to work with, as was the student. And we worked out issues and situations together.”

But Dobbs says he has unanswered questions. For example, he says he’s not sure how schools can best protect the rights of students who might object to sharing a locker room with someone who is transgender.

School sports are also included in the new guidelines. According to NPR’s breakdown of the Obama administration letter, “Transgender boys have the right to go out for the football team and transgender girls should be able to try out for the cheerleading squad.”

The Idaho High School Activities Association (IHSAA) has detailed rules about transgender students participating in sports. For example:

“A male-to-female transgender student athlete who is taking medically prescribed hormone treatment under a physicians care for the purposes of gender transition may participate on a boys team at any time, but must complete one year of hormone treatment related to the gender transition before competing on a girls team.” – IHSAA Rules and Regulations 2015-2016

The IHSAA rules include requirements for medical documentation that a student is transitioning. An association leader says the national organization it belongs to is taking the lead on what to do about the guidelines and has asked the state organizations not to discuss them.  

Some Idaho leaders are coming out strongly against the guidelines. Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter in a written statement calls them a Washington D.C. power play.

“This federal ‘guidance’ dictates solutions to very personal and sensitive matters that should be left to local school administrators, school boards, teachers, parents, students and communities. This action creates needless concern and confusion for students, parents and educators. Threatening to withhold federal Title IX funding for failure to comply with this offensive attempt at social engineering only harms our children. It is unwarranted, unprecedented, and unacceptable.” – Butch Otter

State schools superintendent Sherri Ybarra was also highly critical of the Obama administration, saying at one point in a written statement, “shame on this administration.” But Ybarra did not criticize the guidelines themselves.

“This is yet another example of an extreme top-down approach that won't change day-to-day bathroom use—schools in Idaho are already following bathroom procedures set forth by the U.S. Department of Education. Idaho schools and communities know their students best, and know that each individual students' needs are unique. Our schools and communities will continue to meet those needs in a manner which is respectful and supportive to all, regardless of their situation.” - Sherri Ybarra

Find Adam Cotterell on Twitter @cotterelladam

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