Trump's transgender directive unlikely to reverse policies in Pa., NJ schools

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Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. says the Philadelphia School District will not roll back its protections for transgender students.

In rescinding federal protections for transgender students this week, the Trump administration left it up to states and school systems to determine which bathrooms and locker rooms those students may use -- policy decisions that many districts already have made and are vowing to preserve.

Those policies flowed in large part from Obama-era guidelines that allowed transgender students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice. The directive was not a legal requirement, but warned schools that they could face lawsuits or lose federal aid if they did not comply.

In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, no state laws specifically address transgender students and bathroom access, although New Jersey regulations ban gender-identity-based discrimination in schools. A number of local districts, however, have adopted policies specifically meant to protect transgender students.

In Philadelphia, administrators say that the district's policy – a sweeping directive enacted last year allowing transgender students to use their bathroom of choice, be referred to by their pronoun of choice, and participate on athletic teams of their choice – will not be rolled back in the wake of the Trump administration's action.

The city schools remain "a safe and welcoming place of inclusion for all our students," Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said in a statement. "Every student deserves to know their rights will be recognized and upheld at school. This announcement will not change any School District policy or city law that protects our students."

Mayor Kenney also vowed to protect transgender students, stating via Twitter that they "deserve what every kid deserves -- a fair shot at succeeding. Philly will stand with you even if Federal gov't refuses to."

Montgomery County's Upper Dublin School District adopted a policy last May that allows students to decide which bathrooms, locker rooms, and sports teams they prefer based on their consistently asserted gender. Sara Johnson Rothman, an attorney who heads the school board's policy committee, described it as "pretty expansive" -- and the Trump administration's rollback as "terrible."

"Any time we are restricting rights vs. protecting rights," Rothman said, "we aren’t moving in a path of progress. It’s going backwards.”

The Lower Merion School District adopted a like-minded policy last spring. “We remain firmly committed to providing a safe, supportive and inclusive learning environment for all students and employees,” spokesman Doug Young said in an email. “The district's policies and administrative regulations in support of gender expansive and transgender students were put in place to give school communities the knowledge they need to create a climate in which all students feel safe and valued. That will not change."

New Jersey School Boards Association spokesman Frank Belluscio said he expected the rollback to have no immediate effect on New Jersey schools.

The association has encouraged school districts to allow transgender students access to restrooms or locker rooms consistent with their gender identity.

Citing state regulations, New Jersey Department of Education spokesman David Saenz said in a statement that the state encourages school districts to create their own policies regarding transgender students’ bathroom use. He did not indicate what the policies specifically should state.

The advocacy group Garden State Equality sent a draft to the state Education Department last year, outlining policies for transgender students to use bathrooms consistent with their gender identity, but the department said it had no plans to enact it, said Christian Fuscarino, the organization's director.

The administration's move brought dismay to the group and other LGBT activists.

Jay Lassiter, co-chair of the South Jersey caucus of Garden State Equality, said the order was causing transgender students to feel even more vulnerable.

But, he added, "LGBT activists haven't done a good job, or a halfway good job, of expressing to our American patriots why these accommodations are important."

Frank Catrambone of Williamstown, whose son Mason is a transgender male, said Thursday he hoped the federal rollback would not greatly affect schools in the state.

“People will say, ‘Oh, I don’t want a boy going into the girls' locker room,’” Frank Catrambone said. “But it’s just so ignorant to be saying something like that. You don’t just wake up in the morning and make a choice to be transgender.”

Mason Catrambone, 14, last year was turned away from Camden Catholic High School after school officials found out his transgender status. School officials cited the need to hew to the school's Catholic beliefs.

Mason now attends Williamstown High School, where he has been well-received by peers, his father said. He uses the nurse’s and unisex bathrooms to change for gym class. He does not have a problem with this, but would one day like to be treated like any other male, his father said.

Staff writer Kathy Boccella contributed to this article.