School system awaiting guidance on issue of bathrooms

Gender-neutral area possible, until then

LARRY C. BOWERS Banner Staff Writer
Posted 6/2/16

Cleveland City Schools, like other school systems in Southeast Tennessee and across the state, has adopted a wait-and-see attitude regarding the controversial transgender bathroom edict handed down …

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School system awaiting guidance on issue of bathrooms

Gender-neutral area possible, until then

Posted

Cleveland City Schools, like other school systems in Southeast Tennessee and across the state, has adopted a wait-and-see attitude regarding the controversial transgender bathroom edict handed down by the federal government.

Bills lingering in state legislatures would require all students in public schools and universities to use bathrooms and locker rooms which match their gender at birth.

Supporters of the various state proposals say they will protect the privacy of students. Opponents call them discriminatory.

Cleveland’s Interim Director of Schools Cathy Goodman emphasized Tuesday afternoon, “We want a safe environment for all our students. We’ll make reasonable accommodations for anyone, such as a gender-neutral area. We just want to be respectful of all students.”

Goodman said the school system has a broad, encompassing policy addressing student discrimination, harassment, bullying, cyberbullying and any situation of intimidation.

She went on to say school board attorney Chuck Cagle provided information on a bill which recently circulated in the Tennessee House, opposing the federal requirement for transgender bathrooms.

The bill was withdrawn shortly after Cagle’s update.

“At this time, the school system and the school board are aware of the controversy, and we are waiting to see what is going to happen,” Goodman said Tuesday. “We’ll eventually get guidance from the courts.”

Many Tennessee officials oppose the federal ruling, and Gov. Bill Haslam referred to President Barack Obama as “heavy-handed.” But Haslam and others are concerned this opposition could result in an extreme loss (about $1.3 billion) to the state’s federal education funding.

These concerns have resulted in the withdrawal of the proposed legislation opposing the federal mandate.

Rep. Susan Lynn, a Tennessee Republican from Mount Juliet, filed the proposal. Her bill was later withdrawn to see how legal challenges (against the Washington, D.C., mandate) play out from 10 states (including Tennessee).

The demise of Lynn’s bill followed intense lobbying from both supporters and opponents of the measure in Tennessee. It also questioned the potential economic fallout if it were to become law.

Lynn said she would need to tweak the legislation before bringing it back up again next year.

"There are definitely some issues we need to work out," she said. "We know as soon as this bill passes, we're going to be sued. So if we're going to be heading into a lawsuit, we want to make sure we have the strongest position possible."

Lynn had amended the bill so students who objected could be given an alternative, but opponents said it was still hurtful toward transgender students. She pulled the measure the same day a religious coalition of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, and about 30 pastors, urged lawmakers to stand strong in the face of intense opposition.

They asked lawmakers to ignore the "false prophesies of economic gloom and doom" from outside corporations. It urged legislators to listen to churchgoers, parents and voters in Tennessee.

David Fowler, the president of Family Action Council of Tennessee, blamed the bill's failure on "consistent opposition from the governor's office and others."

"We join the thousands of parents across the state who are profoundly disappointed that Rep. Lynn decided not to proceed with this bill,” Fowler said. “The bill would have simply protected the privacy of the children they have entrusted to our public schools.”

Lynn’s proposal was part of a wave of legislation across the country that opponents say is discriminatory toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. The head of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest LGBT civil rights organization, hailed the death of the Tennessee bill, and urged legislators not to bring it up again.

A spokesperson for an LGBT group said Tennessee lawmakers were wise to learn from the mistakes of North Carolina and Mississippi in halting the legislation. They say it would have only worsened the marginalization and harassment transgender students already face on a daily basis.

The state's attorney general, Herbert Slattery III, has issued an opinion saying the state would risk losing federal education funds if the measure became law, putting more than $1.3 billion in jeopardy.

The leaders of 60 businesses, including the chief executives of Williams-Sonoma, Hilton Worldwide and T-Mobile, had signed a letter that asked Tennessee lawmakers to reject the bathroom bill, saying it was discriminatory.

Haslam, who said he had received calls and emails from a number of business people about the measure, had raised concerns that the state could lose education funding if the measure were to ever become law. Lynn said she spoke to Haslam before yanking the bill.

"We've had conversations about it," Lynn said. "And those conversations had to do with timing, had to do with strategy, and had to do with some outstanding issues we probably need to address in the legislation."

She said she still supports the measure.

"I feel very passionately about this issue," she said. "I really believe that boys should just use the boys room and girls should use the girls room."

Haslam, although he opposed the transgender bathroom bill in the Tennessee General Assembly, still opposes the directive from President Barack Obama’s administration that public schools must allow students to use facilities consistent with their gender identity.

Haslam accused the president of using a “heavy-handed approach.” He said such sensitive issues should be handled, if necessary, by local school boards — and not by the state or the federal government.

Tennessee had joined 10 other states in suing the Obama administration over the directive.

The lawsuit includes Oklahoma, Alabama, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Tennessee, Maine, Louisiana, Utah and Georgia.

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch spoke out in favor of Obama’s decision, saying “there is no room in our schools for discrimination.”

The states’ lawsuit accuse the Obama administration of “running roughshod over commonsense policies” that protect children. It asks a judge to declare the directive unlawful.

The American Civil Liberties Union has sent a letter to every school district in Tennessee on bathroom access for transgender students.

It says that equal access is required by federal law.

“Transgender students are a part of our communities and our schools, and they should be treated with dignity and respect just like everyone else,” said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU-TN executive director. “Schools have a duty to ensure that all students, including transgender children, can learn in a welcoming and harassment-free environment. We all want to protect students’ safety and privacy. Hundreds of school districts around the country allow transgender students to use facilities based on their gender identity,” she said.

“There is no data of any kind to support the contention that these policies undermine student safety,” Weinberg added. “Indeed, these policies actually enhance safety by ensuring that schools are not sending the message that it is OK to target or stigmatize transgender students.”

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(Editor’s Note: An article featuring plans by the Bradley County Schools will be published in a future edition of the Cleveland Daily Banner.)

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