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Debate over transgender use of bathrooms & locker rooms

WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley

Many school districts are working to draft a transgender policy to protect a student’s rights.  The transgender issue effects not only students in K through 12, but at colleges and universities. WBFO's Senior Reporter Eileen Buckley says there is no one set policy in place for schools to follow.

A few weeks ago President Obama issued a directive to public schools across the U.S. stating transgender students should use a bathroom or locker room in which they 'identify with'.

"I think some districts are absolutely struggling with this situations. They want to make sure individuals, students are 100-percent protected from any discrimination,” said Traci Lopardi, Attorney, Harris Beach in Buffalo.

Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley
Traci Lopardi, Attorney, Harris Beach in Buffalo, specializes in education law.

The law firm represents more than 150-school districts across the state and more than 50-school districts in western New York. Lopardi specializes in education law. As the debate continues over a transgender student's rights in a school, Lopardi said the Obama directive was issued in a joint letter from the Department of Justice and Department of Education.

“And that guidance, while it doesn’t have the same force of law, that’s certainly that is something that various educational institutions need to consider, because otherwise they could potentially lose federal funding. We’ve seen some lawsuits around the country, but certainly the Department of Justice becoming involved with some various schools and telling them that they must provide appropriate facilities to transgender individuals, otherwise they will lose federal funds,” Lopardi explained.

Almost a year ago here in New York the State Education Department issued a Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Students Guidance Document to assist districts with polices.  

“So this is very personal for me, as a gay woman, who 30-years ago, if I talked about being a lesbian, there would be the same kind of issues and freight that’s going on right now about transgender kids,” stated Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers.  

Weingarten tells us it is about the ‘safety and security’ of transgender students. 

Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley
Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers.

“To be safe emotionally, they have to be safe physically, and that the places where we’ve had bathrooms that accommodate nonconforming gender issues or accommodate kids who are transgender, there’s not been any safety issues there. That’s actually been better for everyone involved,” explained Weingarten.

Weingarten was recently involved in an ‘op-ed’ piece in Delaware where they’ve changed the policy to make sure transgender students are comfortable in locker rooms and bathrooms.

“It’s actually been helpful. There’s been fewer issues, not more issues and I think those polices are good, those policies are important. In terms of inclusiveness, but most importantly those polices are important in terms of safety and security of children,” Weingarten remarked.

But those who oppose a transgender person using a locker room or bathroom of their chose believe that there could be potential danger for other students. 

Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley
Inside a school bathroom.

For students in Kindergarten through 12, they are protected under the New York State's Dignity for All Students Act. That’s designed to provide a safe and supportive environment without discrimination or bullying.  College and universities follow federal guidelines.  

“I think one of the other difficulties too is school districts have to maintain the privacy for students under the federal Family Rights and Privacy Act, in that regard these types of decisions and these types of decision pertaining to students are and should be very much on a case by case bases,” stated Lopardi.

Back in January the Clarence School District approved a policy. But before the vote both parents and students spoke out for and against the issue. The Buffalo Public School District called the President's directive 'welcome news'. The District is working on developing its own policy to enhance protections and support students.

Lopardi said while districts must remain cognizant of the law and interpretations, the most important aspect is to make sure adults are 'listening to the students'. 

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