Nebraska school officials responded cautiously to new federal guidelines aimed at accommodating transgender students, saying they were still reviewing the letter sent out Friday by the Obama administration and assessing the impact that it could have.
The directive, issued amid a court fight between the federal government and North Carolina, says public schools must allow transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their chosen gender identity.
It also addresses dress codes, athletic participation, accommodations on overnight trips and transgender students’ right to privacy, among other issues. It applies to K-12 schools as well as colleges and universities.
“I think you’re going to see school boards across the country struggling to figure out what this means in their community,” said Bobby Truhe, an attorney with Lincoln-based KSB School Law, which represents many school districts in Nebraska.
The directive from the U.S. Justice and Education Departments represents an escalation in the fast-moving dispute over what is becoming the civil rights issue of the day.
“There is no room in our schools for discrimination of any kind, including discrimination against transgender students on the basis of their sex,” said Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
One by one, conservative political leaders thundered against the directive.
In Texas, Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick said the state was ready to forfeit federal education money, currently about $10 billion, rather than comply.
“We will not be blackmailed by the president’s 30 pieces of silver,” he said. “The people of Texas and the Legislature will find a way to find as much of that money as we can, if we are forced to.”
A similar rebuke came from Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, who called the guidelines a case of federal overreach that “carries no weight of law.”
“I call on the State Board of Education and local elected school board members across the state to reject the bullying of the Obama administration on this important issue,” Ricketts said.
The guidance does not impose new legal requirements on schools. But the letter in effect puts state and local officials on notice that they could lose federal aid or face lawsuits if they confine students to areas or teams based on the gender on their birth certificates.
The administration also issued a 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.
Most Omaha-area schools do not have specific policies for transgender students, opting instead to work with students and families case by case.
Papillion-La Vista Community Schools spokeswoman Annette Eyman said officials will review the directive and see how it aligns with the district’s practices.
“I don’t think it’s going to change our philosophy of working with families to try to decide what’s best for that child and all students,” she said. “I think the really important thing is to try to be respectful of all students. We don’t want any single group of kids to ever feel ostracized, left out or treated differently.”
The district does not have an official policy on restrooms or other accommodations for transgender students but does sit down with students and families to discuss those details.
Eyman didn’t know how many transgender students attend Papillion-La Vista schools but said officials have worked with families and students at all grade levels — elementary, middle and high school.
“Some people don’t even know that we have students who are transgender in our schools,” she said.
Officials in the Omaha Public Schools said they were still digesting the federal instructions.
“As one of the most diverse school districts in the state, it is our goal to ensure fair treatment, equal opportunity and respect for and amongst all of our students,” said a statement issued by the district.
Last year, Bellevue Public Schools became one of the first area school districts to draft specific rules to guide staff and teachers on locker rooms, restrooms and pronouns for transgender students.
The policy was put in place by administrators without a vote by the school board, and some parents and board members said the district was pushing the new rules through without enough public input. Others applauded the district for supporting transgender students.
The policy allows transgender students to dress, use restrooms and participate in gym classes based on their gender identity. Staff cannot refuse to use names or pronouns that don’t match a student’s stated gender identity.
Several districts affirmed their intention to create welcoming environments for all students, even as they scour the new federal guidance with school attorneys and administrators.
“This is a divisive issue, so when an announcement like this is made, people have very strong opinions about it on both ends,” said Russ Uhing, the student services director at Lincoln Public Schools.
In Lincoln, parents and educators team up to create action plans for transgender students, which could involve informing teachers about proper pronouns or figuring out which restroom the student will use. Three transgender students currently use restrooms that correspond with their gender identity, but no accommodations have been made for locker rooms, Uhing said.
“I’ve been in education for over 30 years, and there have always been transgender students in our schools,” he said. “Over these last few years, things are changing, and we will continue to look at our processes.”
In 2014, the district drew ire from parents and some conservative groups over training materials that suggested that teachers replace terms like “boys and girls” with more gender-inclusive language, such as “campers” or “purple penguins.”
In a statement, Millard school officials said the district adheres to the athletic eligibility policy set by the Nebraska School Activities Association and strives to meet the needs — and address privacy concerns — of all students.
In a new policy adopted this year, the NSAA opened up the possibility that transgender students could compete on sports teams that correspond with their gender identity. Students must show evidence of hormone therapy or gender reassignment surgery before they can participate.
That policy ultimately trumped a campaign backed by parochial schools and some religious groups to approve a stricter rule that would have allowed students to compete only on teams that aligned with their gender at birth.
It’s unclear what impact the federal guidelines might have on the NSAA policy. One portion of the federal directive states that students do not need to provide proof of a medical diagnosis or treatment to reflect their gender identity.
NSAA executive director Jim Tenopir did not respond to a request for comment.
Friday, Nebraska Family Alliance, one of the groups that lobbied for the gender-at-birth policy, denounced the federal directive.
“There should not be a price tag on the privacy and safety of schoolchildren,” said Karen Bowling, the group’s outreach and operations director. “When the Obama administration demands compliance by threatening to withhold federal funding, we put children’s safety at risk and force bad policy on the entire nation.”
Officials at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and University of Nebraska at Omaha said many of the guidelines are in line with existing campus policies and practices that prohibit discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation.
Starting this fall, transgender students can opt to live in “gender inclusive” housing at UNL, and UNO has four similar suites on campus. All but two buildings on the UNO campus have designated all-gender bathrooms, according to Jessi Hitchins, the director of UNO’s Gender and Sexuality Resource Center.
She cheered the Obama administration’s stand on transgender rights.
“Not just UNO, but every public institution receiving federal funding has to comply with this, which means the world just became a little bit safer and a little more empowered for our trans people,” she said.
This report includes material from the Associated Press and Washington Post.
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