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Some Tampa Bay schools were addressing transgender issues before the Obama bathroom edict

Photo illustration. [Times files]
Photo illustration. [Times files]
Published May 13, 2016

School superintendents across Florida and the nation got a stern warning from the Obama administration on Friday to respect the rights of transgender students, or face the loss of federal funds.

It's a matter of civil rights, the departments of Education and Justice asserted in a letter to districts. "This means that a school must not treat a transgender student differently from the way it treats other students of the same gender identity."

At least one Tampa-area school district was not waiting for an edict from Washington, D.C., to act on the sensitive subject.

THE LETTER TO SUPERINTENDENTS: "A school must not treat a transgender student differently"

The Hillsborough County school district, which serves more than 212,000 students, recently proposed adding "gender expression" to its anti-harassment policy. The School Board is scheduled to vote on the change in June.

Top district administrators, meanwhile, have been researching specific ways to implement procedures respecting transgender rights — and not only for restroom and locker room use. Matters such as whether a transgender student may run for prom king or queen also need attention as these issues increasingly arise in schools.

When the prom issue came up, principals discovered they could not enter a transgender student's candidacy into district computers, which would not recognize a transgender boy in the category of king because the student was listed by his birth gender, School Board chairwoman April Griffin said.

"Our principals were asking us what to do in this situation," Griffin said. "Our policies and procedures did not address this at all."

Schools with transgender students also have been allowing those students to use separate faculty restrooms, Griffin noted. The federal letter stated that schools may provide individual-access restrooms to students who request privacy, but only if offered to all students.

Further, the departments stated, schools "must allow transgender students access to such facilities consistent with their gender identity" and may not require them to use bathrooms or locker rooms "inconsistent" with their gender identity.

Gina Duncan, transgender inclusion director of Equality Florida, welcomed the administration's action.

"As school boards across Florida work to ensure safe and welcoming learning environments for all of our students," she said, "let these federal directives provide guidance and clarity so that all students are treated equally and consistent with their gender identity. No child should be subject to bullying or harassment in our schools for simply wanting to live an authentic life."

Griffin expected that the Hillsborough board will hear from community members during this debate, just as it has over other sensitive issues such as religion in schools and student athletic transfers.

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The Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando school districts do not have policies specific to transgender students, either. Officials pointed instead to their broader anti-harassment and anti-discrimination rules as catch-alls, and said they had no immediate plans to revise those.

Pinellas schools do offer support services to students who identify as transgender, as well as staff training on LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) issues, district spokeswoman Lisa Wolf said.

That training is intended to create a "safe and civil environment" for LGBTQ students, not to mention all others in the school, including families and staff.

"Students who feel accepted at school are more engaged in learning, motivated and committed to achieving the highest level of education," according to the district description of the program.

Pinellas School Board member Linda Lerner, a longtime advocate for LGBTQ students, said she would ask superintendent Mike Grego to discuss the decree at a board workshop so board members understand its legal implications.

Lerner, who has served on the board since 1990, said out of the few cases she has been made aware of, parents, students and the principal agreed to let the student use the staff bathroom. She said that arrangement seemed to work well.

"I think some districts like our own are own probably doing the right thing but I think other districts aren't," she said.

Lerner, however, said she was slightly taken aback by the issuance of a decree that could result in a loss of federal funding if school districts didn't comply. "I just don't remember that many decrees that told public schools what to do, she said. "But sometimes with civil rights, it's warranted."

Pasco County district leaders indicated they preferred to look at student needs on a case-by-case basis.

"If asked, trained (district-level) staff consults with school staff to develop guidance that is appropriate based on the individuals involved, their age and their needs," spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said.

About a year ago, the district quietly dealt with a request for a transgender student's restroom use at Zephyrhills High School, with no community uproar. Only a small number of people contacted the district, primarily to inquire what was going on.

In a similar fashion, it handled the decision of a Mitchell High School teacher to announce her transition two years ago, alerting parents and students at the teacher's request and receiving mostly support. A few parents raised concerns, which quickly faded away.

The teacher still works in the school.

Pasco County School Board member Allison Crumbley said she had seen little evidence of problems with transgender student rights in her community. She agreed that student rights must be protected, but wondered why all the attention is going to this issue.

"I'm just perplexed," Crumbley said. "We have all these other serious challenges' -- such as inadequate teacher pay and low student achievement -- "and we're worrying about bathrooms."

Hernando County has nothing in place to deal with transgender student needs, spokeswoman Karen Carpenter said.

Hernando School Board member Gus Guadagnino criticized the federal decree and said it probably become an unfunded mandate.

"This is a classic example of our government getting in a world they don't belong," Guadagnino said. "Do they have (a designated restroom for transgender people) in the White House? When they put one in the White House, I'll think more seriously about it."

Also said he hadn't heard of students asking for accommodation in the district. "I got to believe it's blown out of proportion," he said.

Not every school district and community will have the same levels of acceptance or outrage, noted Griffin, the Hillsborough board chairwoman. That's why she too bristled at the notion that federal officials would tell school districts what to do.

"There is a huge overreach from state and federal government into local school districts," Griffin said, suggesting that local communities know better what they can and cannot do.

The new guidance from the Obama administration came one day after the ACLU filed a federal complaint against the Marion County school system for its controversial new policy requiring transgender students to use restrooms according to the gender on their birth certificate. That hotly debated issue of restroom use has created a national flashpoint over the rights of transgender individuals, not only in Florida but also in North Carolina and other states that have adopted, or rejected, laws similar to the Marion school district's rule.

Sarasota County roiled, much like Marion County, over the subject when one school decided to allow transgender students to use the restroom of the gender they identify with.

Miami-Dade County, by contrast, has banned discrimination based on gender identification since 2011. In addition to working with students and staff on a case-by-case basis, the district has a Sexual Minority Liaison Network that includes volunteers from every school to assist transgender students and their families.

"The district office has responded to individual schools for faculty and student support in an effort to provide best practices that act in the best interest of the student in need," spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez-Diego said.

Times Staff Writers Colleen Wright and Dan DeWitt contributed to this report. Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek.