President Trump’s executive order to rescind the bathroom policy for transgender students punts the controversial decision back into the hands of the states.
And New York is doubling down.
The state’s attorney general and education commissioner objected on Thursday to the president’s latest executive order and reminded school districts they are obligated by state law to protect transgender students from discrimination – that includes allowing them to use restrooms that align with their gender identity.
The state’s attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, and education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, pointed to New York’s “Dignity for All Students Act,” which prohibits discrimination and harassment on school grounds or at school functions.
Regardless of the president’s decision, which reignites this debate, Schneiderman made it clear that his office would ensure transgender students are “provided equal access to all programming and facilities consistent with their gender identity.”
In New York, Schneiderman said, “the law remains the law – and school districts have independent duties to protect transgender students from discrimination and harassment when they go to school.”
Schneiderman and Elia, who issued a joint statement, also pointed to provisions of Title IX and said denying students access to facilities consistent with their gender identity could constitute sex discrimination under the federal law.
“Transgender youth are valued members of our schools and communities across New York State, yet statistics show that more than half of them will attempt suicide at least once by their 20th birthday,” Elia said. “So we must do everything in our power to create learning environments that are safe and welcoming for all.”
Trump’s executive order issued Wednesday overrides a directive from the Obama administration that every school district in the country must allow transgender students to use bathrooms and other facilities that match the gender they identify with – not the one they are assigned at birth.
The state Education Department issued guidelines to help school districts comply.
In Buffalo, the school board spent several months debating the policy at public meetings – some of which included large, heated crowds of both supporters and opponents – before finally approving a policy in October by a vote of 8 to 1.
Nothing has changed with the president’s executive order, school officials said.
“We have an approved local policy based on NYSED guidance, therefore the federal reversal has no impact on Buffalo,” said Darren Brown, the district’s chief of staff. “The Buffalo Public Schools embrace all students and continue to be committed to a safe learning environment for everyone.”
The district’s seven-page policy allows for transgender students to use the restroom, locker room and changing facilities after a parent or legal guardian declares a gender identity other than the one listed on medical or birth records.
Each situation is handled on a school by school basis, said School Board President Barbara Seals Nevergold.
“We spent a lot of time discussing the issue, debating it and allowing for input in the community. I don’t see the board going back and changing the policy,” she said. “I think we ultimately came to a policy decision that’s sound and protects children.”
Carl P. Paladino was the only member of the Buffalo School Board to vote against the policy.
Paladino said he objected to the policy because he felt it didn’t provide enough notice to other students that transgender students would be using the restroom that aligns with their gender identity.
“Aside from that, it’s done,” Paladino said Thursday. “I’m not going to fight it.”
All Trump is doing, Paladino said, is saying this is not a federal issue.
But members of Buffalo’s transgender community are worried the president’s latest executive rolls back the rights the transgender community has fought for.
“I’m afraid the ramifications of this is going to lead to more and more blatant discrimination against the entire community and certainly more violence against the community,” said Tricia Quinn, co-chair of the Spectrum Transgender Support Group of Western New York.
While the executive order does open the door to questions and legal challenges in New York, Schneiderman and Elia tried to squash those on Thursday.
“It opens the door for people to have questions,” said Jay Worona, general counsel for the New York State School Boards Association, “but what I think our attorney general and commissioner for education has made clear is New York State can provide even greater levels of protection that our federal government would require us to provide.”