ACLU-TN Files Federal Complaint Challenging Sumner County Schools’ Transgender Bathroom Ban

Affiliate: ACLU of Tennessee
May 19, 2016 3:00 pm

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NASHVILLE — The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee today filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights stating that Sumner County Schools’ policy prohibiting transgender students from using restrooms that correspond with their gender identity violates the requirements of federal anti-discrimination law and the United States Constitution. The complaint was filed on behalf of a transgender high school freshman and her parents.

“No student should have to endure the stigma and marginalization of being segregated from the rest of the student body,” said ACLU-TN cooperating attorney Abby R. Rubenfeld of the Rubenfeld Law Office, PC. “These kinds of blanket bans prevent transgender students from being treated fairly and equally at school. This policy is not only misguided, it’s a direct violation of Title IX and the Fourteenth Amendment.”

The complaint was filed on behalf of the Sumner County public high school student and her parents using pseudonyms, in order to avoid further stigmatization and bullying of the student because of the school district policy. The complaint seeks the Department of Education’s assistance in enforcing federal law regarding the treatment of transgender students in public schools.

Under current district policy, the student is only allowed to use the faculty or the special needs bathroom. According to the complaint, to avoid the stigma of using segregated restrooms, the student either tries to avoid using the restroom at all during the school day, or uses the girls’ restroom under fear of punishment by school officials. There have been no reported incidents or problems from her using the proper restroom for her gender identity and no proof offered that any student has been harmed by her use of the girls’ restroom.

After trying unsuccessfully to work out reasonable accommodations with the school system for the entire 2015-2016 academic year, the student’s family sought legal assistance. On March 4, 2016, ACLU-TN sent a letter to the director of schools requesting a meeting to resolve the issues. The letter urged the school system to discretely come to a reasonable solution in collaboration with the family, specifically stating ACLU-TN’s and the family’s desire to handle the situation without litigation. However, the school system has indicated that it is not willing to alter its restroom policy to conform to the requirements of federal law and the needs of the students involved.

“In our experience, when transgender students, their families and school systems have been able to sit down and discuss a student’s particular situation, more often than not they are able to come to a workable solution together at the local level,” said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU-TN executive director. “In this instance, as always, we tried to work with the school district to find a practical solution. We now hope that the Office for Civil Rights will act quickly to ensure that transgender students in Sumner County are treated fairly and that the investigation results in the school system better understanding the needs of all students in their schools rather than acting out of fear, confusion and misunderstanding.”

The complaint filed with the Office for Civil Rights calls for the district to be required to permit the student to use the girls’ restrooms and locker rooms at school, and to create a new policy ensuring that transgender students be treated the same as other students.

The U.S. Departments of Education and Justice recently announced the release of comprehensive guidance clarifying schools’ legal obligations under Title IX. The guidance was released, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s blog, in response to requests for guidance from “educators, parents and students around the country,” including the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Without making any changes to existing law, the guidance provides clarity to schools that receive federal financial assistance about their existing obligations under federal law to protect all students from sex discrimination, including transgender students. The guidance specifies that “transgender students must be allowed to…access…facilities consistent with their gender identity,” including restrooms and locker rooms.

The guidance continues, “A school’s Title IX obligation to ensure nondiscrimination on the basis of sex requires schools to provide transgender students equal access to educational programs and activities even in circumstances in which other students, parents, or community members raise objections or concerns. As is consistently recognized in civil rights cases, the desire to accommodate others’ discomfort cannot justify a policy that singles out and disadvantages a particular class of students.”

Last month a federal appeals court in Richmond, Virginia ruled in favor of a transgender boy who wished to use the boys’ restroom at his school. The court ruled that Title IX protects the rights of transgender students to use the restrooms that correspond with their gender identity.

“We have raised our daughter to be kind and respectful of others, no matter who they are. What kind of message does it send when the school system itself — the very place we send our children to be educated — is saying it’s okay to treat some kids differently from others because they are unique in some way? That’s not the lesson our schools should be teaching,” said the student’s father. “My number one job as a parent is to watch out for my child’s well-being. To me that means not taking it sitting down when someone tells me they think it’s okay to treat her like a second class citizen. Like any parent would, all we are asking is for our daughter to be treated like other students – the way federal law says she should be.”

A copy of ACLU-TN’s original March 4 letter to Sumner County Schools can be found here.

A copy of the complaint filed today can be found here.

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