Transgender students should be able to use the bathrooms and locker rooms that match the gender they identify with, the Obama administration declared in a letter Friday to all public school districts. The move was applauded as a landmark civil rights victory by some and denounced as dangerous overreach by others.
The White House's request comes as schools across Minnesota grapple with a generation of students that is more openly advocating for inclusion. Some larger districts across the metro area long ago adapted their buildings and bathrooms, but critics see the changes as a threat to students' safety.
The Obama administration had already taken the same position in scattered cases across the country — from a school district in the Chicago suburbs to, most prominently, North Carolina in a lawsuit challenging state law. But Friday's directive was the most sweeping yet.
State Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius supported the letter sent by the Justice and Education departments, as did U.S. Sen. Al Franken.
"Minnesota has come a long way in the past several years to create schools that are welcoming and inclusive," Cassellius said.
Metro school districts from Minneapolis to Eastern Carver County to Anoka-Hennepin may not be affected much by the directive, because they already have inclusion policies. But it comes at an emotional time for districts like New London-Spicer, where a similar policy touched off fierce community opposition this week.
Tracy Clark, 52, of New London has seen family members graduate from New London-Spicer schools. Clark said that if she still had children in the district, she would pull them out.
"I personally don't care if there's a classmate of mine that is a boy thinking he wants to be a girl," she said. "I don't want him in the locker room with me."
Federal funding at stake
The joint letter from the Justice and Education departments isn't law, but it carries weight. Schools that don't comply with Title IX's requirement and discriminate based on a student's sex — an umbrella that includes gender identity, the directive said — will risk federal funding.
In Minnesota, attitudes toward transgender students are conflicted. In 2014, the Minnesota State High School League allowed transgender student athletes to play on the teams that correspond to their gender identities.
This year, state Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, led a group of Republicans in proposing a law that would require transgender people to use bathrooms matching their biological sex. He said in an e-mail Friday that the administration's directive and threat to hold back funding is bullying. His bill has not passed the Legislature, and Gov. Mark Dayton said he would veto any such bill that did.
U.S. Rep. John Kline, a Republican who serves the Second Congressional District, said in a statement that "the administration is suppressing an important national discussion that belongs to the people." The Minnesota Family Council agreed.
"We feel that the guidance letter issued by the Obama administration this morning is an effort to bully all 50 states into silence regarding legitimate safety and privacy concerns," said Stephani Liesmaki, spokeswoman for the organization.
School policies vary
St. Paul considers itself a leader in the state for its gender inclusion policy, according to Communications Director Ryan Vernosh. The policy, approved last year, includes calling students by preferred names and pronouns, giving them the right to participate in co-curricular activities and providing access to facilities that align with their gender.
"I'm a parent, and I think that parents can agree that no child should be in a school setting where their kids don't feel safe and supported," he said.
In Minneapolis, 10 schools have gender-neutral bathroom options accessible to all students but not required for anyone, said Jason Bucklin, who coordinates the LGBT program Out4Good in the district. He said the district has a long history of supporting all students.
A gender inclusion policy that was up for a vote this week in the New London-Spicer district includes language that students could use restrooms aligned with their gender identity, said district Superintendent Paul Carlson. After an emotional debate, including comments from many angry people, the board decided that it was best to postpone the decision until the Minnesota School Boards Association (MSBA) provides some guidance, such as a model policy, Carlson said.
Schools have mostly been working with students on a case-by-case basis to make them comfortable at school, said MSBA Executive Director Kirk Schneidawind. He added that he hasn't yet discussed the issue with lawyers.
Educators had been expecting a White House directive since the start of the school year, said Jay Haugen, superintendent of Farmington schools. He said he's waiting for more explanation regarding the letter from the MSBA and the Department of Education.
"We don't need 330 school districts to make their own individual determinations," he said. "We'll wait to hear what people say."
After 20 years in the district, Carlson knows his community and has seen the divisiveness the transgender issue can bring.
"It's been a difficult conversation for our community," he said.
This story includes reporting from the New York Times. firstname.lastname@example.org 612-673-4569