The bathroom wars have sadly come to our schools here in the East Penn School District. A fight has been raging nationally for over a year now, as opponents of extending civil rights protections to transgender men and women have focused public attention on public bathroom use in places like Texas and North Carolina. An East Penn family has now made our schools a part of this national political debate by insisting that transgender students be excluded from the locker room their daughter uses at Emmaus High School.
Regardless of your knowledge of our district’s transgender population or your views toward transgender civil rights, let me suggest that this is a manufactured controversy, for three reasons.
Reason #1: Current district practice is the result of our own policy, not that of the Obama administration.
The U.S Justice Department, under the Obama administration, issued a letter this past spring indicating that districts must not discriminate against transgender students in any school facilities, including bathrooms and locker rooms. The letter set off a firestorm of controversy nationally, with opponents of President Obama citing it as an example of legal misinterpretation and federal meddling in state and local affairs. The family here in East Penn have cited the letter as a chief motivating factor in bringing the controversy to our district.
But here’s the thing: The practices of our district toward sexual minorities such as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students were in place long before the letter from the U.S. Justice Department. The district’s Nondiscrimination in School and Classroom Practices Policy (#103) was passed on February 23, 2015-- more than a year and a half ago. Moreover, the policy was developed after collecting input from local school administrators, local teachers, our own local school board, and local student groups. It was presented multiple times at local school board meetings, where it was available for public review and comment by the local community.
This is not an Obama issue, a Republican vs. Democrat issue, a liberal vs. conservative issue, or a federal vs. local issue, and nobody in our community benefits from attempts to make it part of such battles.
Reason #2: Our children should not be used as pawns in political battles.
This leads to the second important reason. We should, of course, have vigorous debate over President Obama’s policy initiatives and legal interpretations. But we should not use the children in our schools as pawns in this debate.
Through my own conversations with students, teachers, and administrators, I understand that students are almost always able to easily and amicably come to terms with transgender students and their full participation in school life, just as students have come to terms with women in schools, with racial minorities in schools, and with gay, lesbian, and bisexual students in schools. This does not mean that students don’t have questions and concerns, nor does it mean that they all agree with one another. But they are ready to respect one another and respect that we live in a diverse community that values equality between different people.
The trouble arises when our kids return home and discuss these issues with the adults in their lives. Some adults too quickly hitch the many different student identities to larger political debates and battles. This is wrong, no matter what side of the debate you happen to be on. Don’t make children in our local community the foot soldiers in national partisan fights.
Reason #3: ALL children at East Penn have access to accommodations
And this brings me to the third and most important point. All our students-- including the student of the family who has ignited the controversy-- deserve to feel respected and feel safe in school. Nobody is forced to undress or shower under conditions that make them feel uncomfortable. Students routinely use bathroom stalls and other private areas. Students who are uncomfortable changing in the locker room or using restrooms are offered further options, from changing in a nurse’s bathroom to taking summer gym.
So this is ultimately a manufactured controversy, fueled by a lack of knowledge of actual school policy, unfair in its use of students as pawns in a national political fight, and fueled by a desire for the public spotlight rather than easy, pragmatic accommodation of one family’s beliefs.
Let’s get our focus out of the bathrooms and locker rooms, and on to ways we can improve our schools for everyone.