The Wake County school system allows some transgender students to use the student bathroom of their choice while offering to let other transgender students use staff restrooms.
Wake County school officials say they decide whether to approve requests from transgender students to use different restrooms case by case, approving some and turning down others. Now two transgender teenagers are urging North Carolina’s largest school system to allow all transgender students to use the restroom that matches their identity.
An online petition was created after Hayden Riner, 17, said he was threatened with suspension from Athens Drive High School in Raleigh if he continued to use the boys’ restroom. Hayden was born a female but identifies himself as male.
“The public school system was set in place to give every student an equal opportunity to gain a good education,” Hayden said. “It’s really hard to get a good education when you’re being threatened to be suspended for using the restroom.”
The petition, which had 698 signatures as of Sunday afternoon, comes amid a national push backed by the Obama administration to expand protections for transgender students. But the effort has drawn opposition from social conservatives who cite religious and privacy reasons.
“These restroom policies in schools essentially convey the message to children that their gender is not connected to their anatomy,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, director of the Raleigh-based Christian Action League. “These policies cooperate and facilitate what has been rightly characterized as a mental disorder and thus is harming the children.”
Issue in governor’s race
The issue of usage of school bathrooms is even part of the gubernatorial campaign. Republican Gov. Pat McCrory criticized state Attorney General Roy Cooper, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, for not supporting a Virginia school district that is being sued in federal court. McCrory filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting that district’s right to not allow transgender students to use a restroom that’s different from that of their biological sex.
Last year, federal education and justice lawyers argued in a statement of interest in the Virginia case that requiring a student to use the bathroom that matches birth-assigned sex, rather than declared identity, amounts to bias under the Title IX anti-discrimination law.
Locally, each bathroom request from a transgender student is reviewed individually, according to Heather Lawing, a Wake County school spokeswoman. Lawing said the review takes into account factors such as the age of the student, the wishes of the student’s parents, feedback from the principal and teachers, and the availability of restroom facilities.
Lawing said Wake would also review and potentially approve any requests from transgender students to use the locker-room facility of the gender they identify with. She said students don’t typically shower in locker rooms unless they’re on athletic teams.
Lawing said the district is not aware of any requests having been made from transgender students to use locker-room facilities matching their gender identity.
But Wake has approved bathroom requests from transgender students to use restrooms that are opposite of their biological sex, according to Lawing. However, she said Wake doesn’t collect data on how many requests have been made or granted.
In cases where requests aren’t granted, Lawing said that options such as use of staff bathrooms are offered.
“We work with students to accommodate them and to make them feel supported and safe in the environment and will continue working with them until we can make them happy,” Lawing said.
Launching the petition drive
But Hayden said he felt far from safe and supported at Athens Drive when he was ordered to stop using the boys’ bathroom. Lawing said she couldn’t discuss Hayden’s case because of federal privacy laws.
Hayden said he was given the options of using a staff restroom or the restroom in the school’s library, which also serves as a community library. But Hayden said the options weren’t practical because the restrooms were sometimes locked and were far from many of his classes, causing him to be late.
Hayden also disagrees with Wake’s stance that because most students are minors, administrators won’t approve the request if the parents are opposed. In Hayden’s case, his father, Kelden Everett, says the school system never asked him about Hayden’s request.
“If the student is old enough to be taking driver’s ed and is old enough to be deciding what college to go to, they’re old enough to decide what bathroom to use,” Hayden said. “They’re fully capable of making their own decision.”
Hayden says problems at the school, such as how a teacher didn’t respect his requests to be referred to as a male, resulted in the senior leaving Athens Drive in September. Hayden enrolled in an alternative school program and graduated in October.
Hayden’s plight prompted his friend, C.J. Lewis, 17, a senior at Athens Drive High, to create an online petition asking Superintendent Jim Merrill and school board member Jim Martin, chairman of the policy committee, to change district policy.
“There are these bright minds that you’re not giving equal access to like other bright minds in Wake County,” said C.J., who is also transgender. “To not give them the same opportunities as other students is a disservice.”
Board member’s response
Martin said he’s comfortable with leaving in place existing policies that give flexibility to staff to handle requests from transgender students. Board policies prohibit harassment and bullying of students because of their gender identity.
“I would highly doubt that the board would write a bathroom policy,” Martin said. “Policy should never be narrowly focused on narrow, specific actions.”
Wake’s approach of handling requests case by case doesn’t satisfy groups on different ends of the spectrum.
John Rustin, president of the N.C. Family Policy Council, said it’s reasonable to allow transgender students to have access to private restrooms. But he said it would go too far, even on a case-by-case basis, to allow transgender students to share restrooms with students of a different biological sex.
“To adopt a policy that could have a detrimental effect on a wide swath of students to accommodate a single student or a small handful of students when a different type of accommodation could meet that same need doesn’t seem like a common sense or a reasonable approach,” Rustin said.
But Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality North Carolina, said transgender students shouldn’t have to be paraded to a staff restroom. He said Wake’s approach puts up too much red tape for transgender students.
“We all know that being an adolescent and being a high school student is hard enough,” Sgro said. “We don’t need to further subject folks who are subject to discrimination to go through an even harder process to have a basic comfort to use the restroom during the school day.”