A new federal directive on how schools should accommodate the bathroom needs of transgender students sent North Carolina school officials scrambling Friday to determine whether their districts are in compliance.
North Carolina education Superintendent June Atkinson told McClatchy the state’s public schools are already following the federal equality guidelines, which were handed down to districts across the country Friday.
Interviews with local school officials indicated that was true in at least some North Carolina districts. In Wake County schools, for example, transgender students are able to use the bathrooms that match their gender identities in some instances.
It was less clear elsewhere, though school officials said they were confident they were in compliance.
In Charlotte-Mecklenberg schools, officials said accommodations were made for transgender students, though it was not clear what those accommodations were.
NC superintendent says schools already follow federal rules
Durham Public Schools officials said they would revisit their arrangements. Now, the district works with families of transgender students to find private facilities for use, such as staff bathrooms or single-occupancy restrooms. But that system likely violates the new directive.
Other North Carolina districts contacted Friday said school leaders and attorneys would restart conversations on the topic in light of the new federal directive.
The new guidance, contained in a letter to school districts throughout the United States, says schools “may not require transgender students to use facilities inconsistent with their gender identity or to use individual-user facilities when other students are not required to do so.”
Advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights billed the move as historic, though the letter does not mandate any actions and is considered guidance only. However, schools that do not abide could face a loss of federal aid, according to federal officials.
I’m actively engaged with colleagues in exploring reasonable options to restrict the ability of the executive branch to bully a state or local government.
U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C.
The move drew sharp criticism from Republican leaders Friday morning.
The letter does not mention North Carolina specifically but some interpreted the move as a rebuke of the state’s controversial HB2 law – enacted in March to overturn a city ordinance in Charlotte that sought to protect LGBT rights. The federal Justice Department is suing the state, alleging that HB2, which requires that students use the bathrooms of the sexes listed on their birth certificates, is a violation of civil rights.
Still, the federal directive won’t change day-to-day bathroom use in North Carolina’s public schools, according to Atkinson, North Carolina’s top education official.
In a phone interview with McClatchy late Thursday night, Atkinson said schools were already compliant with federal expectations. She said obeying HB2 would put schools in direct conflict with the federal directive.
Atkinson, a Democrat, mentioned another bill floated in North Carolina that would clamp down on school bullying and promote safety, including gender identity as a protected class.
“It’s a very frustrating time for us in the state, especially those who are in education,” she said.
N.C. districts handle HB2 differently
In Charlotte, it appears that schools haven’t changed anything due to HB2.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools spokeswoman Renee McCoy said Friday that the district meets with the families of any students with special needs – including issues related to gender identity – to work out appropriate learning plans for the children.
Charlotte schools, McCoy said, comply with federal Title IX, which prohibits discrimination in any education program and which the Obama administration now says extends to bathroom use.
McCoy said the school system had received no guidance from state government about HB2. Nor has the school system, she said, heard from federal officials since the legal fight over the issue escalated this week.
School officials in Salisbury responded Friday in a way that demonstrates how districts are torn over state law and federal guidelines. A statement from spokeswoman Rita Foil appears to indicate that the district intends to comply with HB2 while providing “all our students with a welcoming, supportive school environment.”
School districts across the state appeared to be choosing their words carefully, given the dueling state and federal bathroom directives.
“We will work with our transgender students in compliance with state law and in a way that considers the privacy of all our students,” the statement from the Rowan-Salisbury school district read.
Two local districts have already passed school board resolutions publicly condemning HB2. Durham Public Schools and Chapel Hill-Carrboro oppose HB2’s mandates for schools.
The Durham Board of Education is “vehemently opposed” to HB2, said district spokeswoman Chrissy Deal. She added that the new federal input will require district officials “to have some new conversations.”
Even before HB2 passed, some North Carolina schools were directing transgender students to use single-person restrooms instead of multi-stall school bathrooms that match their gender identities.
The Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system, located in one of the most Democratic-leaning parts of the state, created single-stall, gender-neutral restrooms for transgender students to use.
Jeff Nash, a spokesman for Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools, said Friday that the district needed to review the federal guidance to see whether changes should be made.
“I can’t remember in 25 years having a situation like this,” Nash said of the conflicting federal and state rules. “At the end of the day, we just want to make sure all our students are safe and protected. Our top priority is the safety of our students.”
The Wake County school system comes closer than many North Carolina school systems do in allowing some transgender students to use the restrooms matching their gender identities. But Wake – the largest district in the state – doesn’t go as far as the new federal guidelines seem to require, because some transgender students there are directed to use staff restrooms.
And Wake schools won’t grant transgender bathroom requests unless parents are supportive, officials said.
Wake school officials said Friday that their goal was to provide a respectful, safe and supportive environment for all students. For now, student requests are handled on a case-by-case basis.
“News and developments about the topic of transgender students have changed almost weekly and sometimes even more frequently since March,” Wake school officials said in a statement. “Our attorneys are reviewing the most recent developments related to HB2 and federal guidance.”
The apparent confusion among school administrators is why federal officials weighed in specifically about bathrooms, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Friday. The guidance has been in the works “for years,” even if the situation is “relatively new to our political debate,” he said.
Earnest didn’t mention North Carolina specifically, but said school administrators “can’t rely on political arguments that are framed as a solution to a problem that nobody can prove exists.”
School leaders, he said, are “not interested in a political argument. They’re actually interested in practical suggestions about how they confront this challenge that they face every day.”
Federal officials said the new guidance didn’t require any student to use shared facilities when schools made alternate arrangements.
There is no room in our schools for discrimination of any kind, including discrimination against transgender students on the basis of their sex. This guidance gives administrators teachers, and parents the tools they need to protect transgender students from peer harassment and to identify and address unjust school policies.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch
Pittenger: Obama acting like ‘monarch’
Still, the federal directive angered many. U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C., blasted the Obama administration, accusing the president of creating “new laws based on how he’s feeling today.”
“President Obama seems to believe he is a monarch, ruling through edict like kings of old, instead of governing responsibly as one part of an accountable, carefully divided system of government,” Pittenger said to McClatchy in a statement.
The Charlotte-area congressman said he was concerned about the government’s separation of powers over the issue.
“I’m actively engaged with colleagues in exploring reasonable options to restrict the ability of the executive branch to bully a state or local government. Our Founding Fathers gave us a system for changing or updating laws. It involves Congress, not royal decree,” Pittenger said.
Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump also weighed in, saying in a round of TV interviews Friday morning that he thought the issue should be decided by the states.
Asked on “Fox & Friends” whether boys should be able to use the girls’ bathrooms, he called it a “new issue” and said he didn’t yet have an opinion: “Right now I would just like the states to make that decision.”
LGBT equality advocates praised the White House’s moves Friday as well as the administration’s 25-page document sent to schools across the country describing accommodation policies such as installing privacy curtains or allowing transgender students to change in bathroom stalls.
“These groundbreaking guidelines not only underscore the Obama administration’s position that discriminating against transgender students is flat-out against the law, but they provide public school districts with needed and specific guidance guaranteeing that transgender students should be using facilities consistent with their gender identity,” said Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin.
Clarification: In Wake County, North Carolina, schools, transgender students are able to use the bathrooms that match their gender identities in some instances. An earlier version of this story said this was the situation in “most” cases. There is no data available to say what percentage of requests are approved.
Charlotte Observer reporter Michael Gordon, McClatchy’s Lesley Clark and Anita Kumar, and The News and Observer’s T. Keung Hui and Lynn Bonner contributed to this article.