Obama administration gives schools guidance on transgender students' rights

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Matt Dawkins (right) hangs out with twin sister Jada Dawkins and their father, Nigel Dawkins, during a meet at Washington Township High School on April 14, 2015.

As promised, the Obama administration on Friday sent letters to school districts across the country outlining the civil rights of transgender students, including access to bathrooms and locker rooms.

Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs and activities that receive federal funds, the letter said, saying schools should allow transgender students to use bathrooms consistent with their chosen gender identity.

The sweeping guidance does not have the force of law, but it warns that schools that do not comply could face lawsuits or lose federal aid. It ups the ante in the debate over bathroom laws, which are the subject of a charged lawsuit between North Carolina and the U.S. Department of Justice.

The eight-page letter from the Department of Justice and the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights sent many school officials scrambling and provoked strong reaction from all sides.

School union leaders, national education groups and civil rights organizations, and transgender students lauded the move. Others did not.

Steve Miskin, spokesman for Pennsylvania House Republicans, said lawyers are looking at the federal guidance. But he said the directive is an example of overreach.

"It is wrong for the Obama administration to jump in and try to dictate law while the issue is going to be working its way through the courts," he said.

Jeffrey Sheridan, spokesman for Gov. Wolf, said the governor was "committed to working with the General Assembly to end discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression in any form."

He said the Pennsylvania Department of Education would work with other state agencies and experts "to provide the necessary resources and clarification to school districts as they evaluate the new federal guidance."

Several area school districts are working on policies to comply with the federal guidelines, while others - such as Great Valley in Chester County, Springfield Township in Montgomery County, and Cherry Hill in Camden County - have transgender policies in place.

"We are happy that our district has demonstrated that we are in compliance with the president's directive," Nancy Hacker, Springfield superintendent, wrote in an email.

Cherry Hill adopted a policy addressing transgender students in February. Each of the district's three high schools now has a gender-neutral bathroom.

In an unintended testament to just being treated as normal, Matt Dawkins, 18, of Marlton, said he hadn't even heard about the federal guidance on transgender students by late Friday afternoon.

"I'm just about to leave for my prom," the Cherokee High School senior apologized, dressed in a tuxedo and eager for the festivities ahead with his date, Liani Ortiz.

Dawkins, who grew up as Maya, came out to his school as transgender in the fall of his junior year.

At first, he started using a restroom at the school nurse's office and had a separate locker. Now he uses the boys' restroom and the boys' locker room, and no one seems to care.

Of the federal directive, he said he was glad for students who are like him but who haven't been as accepted.

"It's definitely an accomplishment. I'm sure a lot of people have been waiting for this," Dawkins said. "I'm just really relieved for the other trans kids."

The Philadelphia School District adopted a policy banning discrimination of students based on gender or sexual orientation in 2004.

"Our practice has been to accommodate students and work with them to find the best accommodations to make them feel welcome and safe," district spokesman Fernando Gallard said.

He said that included access to bathrooms based on the gender that students identify with or to facilities that are gender-neutral.

Gallard said the district was working on a transgender policy to provide more guidance.

Graciela Slesaransky-Poe, the founding dean of the School of Education at Arcadia University and a national expert on the inclusion of gender-nonconforming and transgender students, also applauded Obama's directive.

But, she said, "I find it fascinating and concerning that the public conversation about the needs of gender-nonconforming or transgender students gets reduced to bathroom or locker use."

Slesaransky-Poe said more had to be done to "ensure that our gender-nonconforming children and youth feel safe, welcomed, affirmed, included, and valued in their schools communities."

The West Chester Area School District will begin working on a transgender policy to put in place by fall, Superintendent Jim Scanlon said Friday.

"We just want to make sure we look at our practices and procedures," Scanlon said. "We want to make sure everybody has a safe and accepting school environment."

The letter from the Obama administration was praised by the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and the Human Rights Campaign, a civil rights organization.

Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, said the organization did not yet have a reaction to the federal guidance.

He said he knows from conversations that some districts had already been setting their own policies on the issue, adding, "Everybody is trying to find the right pathway to make sure the students are safe and secure in their environment."

martha.woodall@phillynews.com215-854-2789@marwooda

Staff writer Justine McDaniel and Karen Langley of the Harrisburg bureau contributed to this article, which also contains information from the Associated Press.

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