When Drew Adams began at Allen D. Nease High School in Ponte Vedra he was excited for a fresh start with new classmates. The transgender teen, who was born female, transitioned the summer before his freshman year. He was going to school as a boy for the first time.
It also meant that he was using the boys' bathroom.
But school officials barred him from the boys' bathroom a month after school began in 2015, Drew said, after someone anonymously complained about his presence there. When his mother, Erica Kasper, failed to reach a resolution with school officials, she filed a complaint with the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights, which had successfully pressed other school districts into allowing transgender students to use bathrooms that matched the gender they identify with. The office began investigating but stopped after a federal judge in August 2016 issued an injunction in response to a lawsuit challenging the department's protections for transgender students.
After hearing nothing from federal officials for nearly a year, and after the Trump administration rescinded protections for transgender schoolchildren seeking to use bathrooms that align with their gender identity, Drew and his mother gave up hope. Last week they sued school officials and the St. Johns County School Board, alleging that the school system is violating Drew's rights by refusing him access to the boys' bathroom and directing him to use out-of-the-way unisex bathrooms.
"Forcing me to use a separate restroom . . . makes it clear to me that the school district sees me as a lesser person," said Drew, now 16 and a rising junior, who said he has missed class trekking to the unisex bathrooms.
The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, alleges that school officials are violating Title IX, the federal law that bars sex discrimination in public schools, and the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. Drew and his mother are represented by Lambda Legal.
St. Johns County Superintendent Tim Forson, speaking on behalf of the school district, said in an email: "We disagree with the plaintiff's interpretation of the law."
School board chair Tommy Allen declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying through his executive secretary that he could not answer questions about an ongoing legal issue.
Drew's case comes as LGBT advocates are closely monitoring how the Education Department under President Trump handles civil rights complaints from gay and transgender students. Under President Barack Obama, the department successfully pressed several school districts to allow transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that matched their gender identity, often raising the ire of local officials and others who believe the federal government overstepped its authority. The Obama administration issued guidance in April 2016 directing public schools to give transgender students access to bathrooms that match the gender they identify with.
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President Donald Trump has proposed cutting the department's civil rights staff. In February, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions revoked the Obama-era guidance.
Under Trump, the Education Department has also issued a memo saying civil rights investigators could close complaints from transgender students who have been barred from bathrooms that align with their gender identity. The department closed two high-profile cases involving such complaints.
An Education Department spokesman said the civil rights office continues to investigate a discrimination complaint made by a transgender person in the St. Johns County district, but the spokesman said he could not identify the individual or the school involved because of privacy laws.
After three school counselors met with Drew in September 2015 to tell him he was no longer allowed in the boys' bathroom, his mother met with school officials, hoping to persuade them to change their minds, according to the lawsuit. But she encountered resistance from administrators. One told her he was concerned a transgender girl would "wave her penis around" in a girls' bathroom, according to the suit.
Originally, Kasper and Drew hoped their civil rights complaint with the Education Department would lead to a resolution. A federal investigator began looking into the case and negotiating with school officials to give Drew access to the bathroom. Kasper and Drew were heartened when the Obama administration issued guidance that extended protections for transgender students.
"I had hoped that maybe the OCR would talk to the district and force their hand into making them treat me right," Drew said.
Then, several states sued to overturn the guidance, calling it an overreach of federal authority, and in August a judge issued an injunction halting the guidance, which meant the department also had to halt investigations related to it. The same month, an investigator told Kasper and Drew that Drew's case was in a holding pattern because of the injunction. They said they have heard nothing from the department since.
Now, they said they hope for resolution through a lawsuit. Drew, who is volunteering at a hospital this summer, said he dreams of becoming a psychiatrist specializing in treating transgender patients, "combining my two loves: my queerness and medicine." He took three Advanced Placement classes and four honors courses as a sophomore plans to keep up his rigorous academic load next fall.
Walking to faraway bathrooms "takes a lot of time from class," Drew said. "I don't have time to waste."