A Wright County mother sued a Minnesota school district on Thursday, charging school officials with discriminating against her son, who is transgender.
The lawsuit alleges that Buffalo Community Middle School repeatedly isolated her son from his classmates, limited his restroom access to a single-occupancy facility that no other student was required to use and removed him from physical education classes.
According to the lawsuit, Matt Woods was 11 years old in September 2015 when he transitioned socially, adopting a new name and the pronouns “he” and “him” to align with his gender identity. He wanted to use the boys’ toilets and locker rooms when he attended Buffalo Community Middle School. But school officials instead required him to use a single-occupancy bathroom that was difficult to access between classes, according to the suit.
“I prefer to use boy facilities because I’m a boy,” Matt Woods said in an interview Tuesday. “I don’t want to be treated any different than other students.”
“I’m amazed,” said his mother, Helene Woods, “that I have to go to court just to let my child use the bathroom.”
School officials on Tuesday denied the allegations in the lawsuit. “The District respects the rights of all students and plans to vigorously defend against the lawsuit,” said a written statement provided by Scott Thielman, superintendent of the Buffalo-Hanover-Montrose Schools.
According to the lawsuit, Matt was told he would use a single-occupancy restroom inside the nurse’s office, located away from classrooms and other restrooms and more difficult to reach between classes. The sixth-grader was embarrassed and felt stigmatized, the lawsuit says.
By December 2015, Matt was hospitalized for mental health care when it became clear to his mother and his health providers that he was suffering from stress and anxiety because he was denied the use of the boys’ facilities. When he returned to school in February, he asked to use the boys’ restrooms and locker rooms because he was more comfortable using the facilities that matched his gender identity.
The principal denied the request, the lawsuit says, saying it would be unsafe for him. Matt, his mother and his health providers didn’t share that view.
The following school year, district officials again denied Matt’s request to use the boys’ facilities. School officials also offered Matt the use of a single-stall bathroom reserved for teachers. But according to the lawsuit, it often was locked when Matt tried to use it during class time and was often blocked by teachers serving as hall monitors in between classes.
As a result, Matt often didn’t use the bathroom during the school day and instead waited to use a bathroom at a nearby store or waited until he got home.
In addition, the suit says, Matt wasn’t permitted to use the boys’ or the girls’ locker rooms for gym. Instead, he was told to use a bathroom that had to be unlocked for him at the start of each class. It didn’t have a locker or a shower, requiring him to carry his belongings to and from his hallway locker. Eventually, the school removed him from gym class.
Moved to private school
Over time, the family says, Matt’s grades began to slip, he stopped doing homework and he began skipping school. By midyear, Matt had to be hospitalized again for mental health treatment. When it was time to return to school, his mother enrolled him in a private Minneapolis school — an hour away and more costly but more accommodating and accepting, she said.
The following fall, Matt enrolled in a Monticello middle school. Officials there accepted his gender identification and allowed him to use the boys’ restrooms. Bullying among classmates, however, made for a rough year, according to the family. Most kids had known him as a different person in elementary school, his mother said. But the adults at the school addressed the bullying and it eventually stopped, Helene Woods said.
“They made sure everyone understood he was male and deserved respect just as they do,” she said. “The difference is how the adults respond.”
Helene Woods said she believes schools want to do the right thing for kids.
“We need to understand that transgender kids are just kids. Denying them access to the facilities that meet their gender identity especially in the elementary and middle school age is causing serious harm to these kids.”
Now a 16-year-old high school student in Monticello, Matt said he feels accepted for who he is.
“I feel normal,” he said, adding that he wants other transgender kids to feel normal. “They can have the courage to come out and if they do have problems, adults will be there for them. They’ll feel more accepted and more accepted and bullying won’t happen.”