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Association Helps Schools Navigate Transgender Bathroom Guidelines

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: States and school districts are figuring out how to respond to the Obama administration's new guidance on transgender students and bathrooms. Officials in Arkansas, in Texas and other states have already said they will not be complying. Matt Sharp of the conservative Alliance Defending Freedom has been fighting against similar policies in public schools around the country.

MATT SHARP: We're hearing from lots of students across the country and parents saying this violates our right to privacy - when we're forced to share locker rooms, showers and restrooms with someone of the opposite sex.


Some states say they will follow the federal directive, which directs schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity. For many transgender students and their families, that comes as a relief. We spoke this week with Debi Jackson of Kansas City, Mo. She is homeschooling her transgender daughter Avery because she says local schools won't enroll her as a girl. She described Avery's reaction when she was told about the new guidelines.

DEBI JACKSON: She looked at me. Her eyes got really big. She just kind of opened her mouth and sat for a second with this stunned expression. And then she almost whispered - that's life-changing, Mom. I could actually go to a real school.

KELLY: So voices there on both sides of this debate. And today, we hear from that rarest of things in this polarized political landscape, a neutral voice. The National School Boards Association is taking care not to tell its members what to do. It is trying to help them navigate this thicket of sometimes contradictory federal guidelines, state laws and court rulings. Francisco Negron is general counsel for the association, and he says he has been getting a lot of phone calls from members.

FRANCISCO NEGRON: There are some tricky situations for school districts because of the unsettled sort of national nature of the law. The federal guidance, of course, takes a certain position, which is not surprising. It's the same position that the federal government has been taking over a number of years. But then there are certain states where, for instance, as in North Carolina and Mississippi, the law appears to be diametrically opposed to what the federal guidance says. And so schools in those situations are really placed in an untenable position.

KELLY: In places where state law seems to be in conflict with federal guidance, the federal guidance is just that. It's guidance. It's not legally binding. However, looming over all this is the threat that schools and states that don't comply risk losing federal money. How real is that threat?

NEGRON: Well, as far as we know, the federal government has never refused to fund a school district or taken away the funding from a local school district based on a violation of Title IX. However, that is a very real threat. In fact, the guidance itself begins with a very clear statement that following this guidance is premised on the condition of accepting federal funds.

KELLY: Let me ask you to drill down on a couple of places, specifically, where these questions are playing out. Describe for us the situation in Palatine, Ill.

NEGRON: So in Illinois, the question has been where a transgender girl sought access to the locker room. And she was represented by the ACLU. And the school district was subject of a complaint filed with the Office of Civil Rights at the federal Department of Education. And eventually, they settled the case. Well, as it turns out, then, just a few weeks ago, several students and their parents in that same school district sued not only the federal Department of Education, but also the school district, claiming that their right to privacy was violated because they would have to be sharing locker rooms and disrobing in the presence of a transgender girl. So the question, I think, is going to be one that's ultimately going to resolved by the courts, precisely because it involves constitutional rights like the right of privacy and sort of the right to personhood, as well. Unfortunately, the courts take their time. And so I don't know that this issue will be resolved as much as we want it to in the very near future.

KELLY: Francisco Negron, thanks for talking to us.

NEGRON: You're welcome.

KELLY: Francisco Negron is general counsel for the National School Boards Association. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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