Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison is threatening to remove his deputies from schools unless the school district develops a uniform policy on access to restrooms and locker rooms for transgender students.
The Wake County school system leaves it up to individual principals to decide on a case-by-case basis whether transgender students can use communal bathrooms and locker rooms that don’t match the gender on their birth certificates.
But Harrison, who provides school resource officers to 20 schools, said the lack of a district-wide policy is confusing both deputies and families about what’s allowed. Harrison said he doesn’t care what position the district takes as long as it’s uniform across all 176 schools.
“If I was a parent who had a girl in PE, I definitely would want to know,” Harrison said in an interview Monday. “And everyone I’ve talked to wants to know. It doesn’t have one thing to do with politics.”
Wake County school board Chairman Tom Benton said it’s completely political that Harrison is raising the issue so close to the Nov. 8 election. Harrison is not up for re-election, but all nine school board members are.
“It’s directly because of HB2,” Benton said, referring to the state law passed in March that requires transgender people in government buildings to use restrooms that match their birth certificates. “Why hasn’t he raised questions before? Transgender students haven’t just shown up.”
Benton said Wake is joining other North Carolina systems in waiting until the federal courts rule on the matter before developing a more formal policy.
School systems have been involved in a tug of war between the Obama administration and state lawmakers. The Obama administration has said that Title IX, the federal law that bans discrimination on the basis of sex, requires schools to accommodate restroom and locker-room requests from transgender students.
Every Wake County high school and middle school has an armed law enforcement officer, called a school resource officer. The Wake County Sheriff’s Office has deputies at schools outside municipal limits and middle schools in Raleigh.
Harrison said he was moved to act after a deputy at West Millbrook Middle School in Raleigh approached the principal earlier this month about a transgender student who was seen leaving the girls’ locker room. Harrison said the deputy was told it was permitted for the student to use that changing facility.
Harrison met with Wake Superintendent Jim Merrill on Sept. 16 to discuss the transgender access issue. Principals at the schools staffed by deputies received a letter from Harrison on Sept. 19 asking about their individual access policies on transgender students.
“I just need clarity and the parents need clarity throughout the county,” Harrison said.
Merrill then sent his own memo on Thursday to principals and school resource officers that cited the need to protect the confidentiality of student information. Merrill said officers who are approached by parents or students with questions about locker room or bathroom access should refer those people to the principal and to also notify the principal.
Benton said that bathroom and locker room access are solely administrative matters unless there’s a report of alleged criminal activity.
“We’ve had transgender students for years,” Benton said. “We have always worked with students and their parents discreetly and privately and ensure the safety of all students. We can’t find a single case where a transgender student has ever put the safety of students at risk.”
Harrison said the district’s approach leaves deputies, who may be rotating between multiple schools, asking embarrassing questions because they don’t know what’s allowed at that school. He said it also leaves parents uncertain of what rules are in place.
“It’s not about putting anybody in jail,” Harrison said. “We just need to know what the policy is. We need to know what to do if someone calls and says, ‘Did you know there was a male changing in the female dressing room?’ ”
Harrison said he’s serious about potentially removing his deputies if the district doesn’t develop a policy. But he said any removal would not be imminent and that he’d try to find another agency to step in first.
“If I can’t have some clarity and my SROs are going to get embarrassed, I will consider pulling them out,” Harrison said.
Benton said the school district would make appropriate plans, if needed, to provide security to replace any officers removed by Harrison.
“I am surprised that he would put the security of our schools in jeopardy over a policy that doesn’t apply to his SROs,” Benton said.