At least once a day, Pam Retzlaff answered a call from parents concerned about her decision to allow a transgender student at Edgar Road Elementary School to use a bathroom different from his biological gender.
“It was hard in the beginning, very hard,” she said. “You can imagine my first open house. I had more parents in my office than ever before.”
It was new territory for Retzlaff, then principal of the school in Webster Groves, Missouri, a St. Louis suburb, but it was never a question of whether she would or wouldn’t open the bathroom.
And as time passed, the calls slowly began to subside, going from once a day, to once a week, to once a month.
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That was more than two years ago – a blip in the schoolwide effort to help the soon-to-be third-grader transition as seamlessly as possible from female to male – yet still no cohesive policy exists nationwide on the issue of bathroom access for transgender students.
Even before controversy erupted earlier this year over new state laws limiting transgender rights, or this month’s deadly mass shooting at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando, many schools across the country had taken proactive steps to make the school environment safer and more welcoming to transgender students.
In North Carolina, transgender individuals’ use of bathrooms has been in the spotlight since the N.C. General Assembly approved House Bill 2 in March. HB2 requires people in government facilities to use bathrooms that match the gender on their birth certificates.
On Monday, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools announced that when school opens in August, transgender students will be called by the name and pronoun they choose. That chosen gender identity will be honored in restrooms, locker rooms, yearbooks and graduation ceremonies, according to a new regulation released Monday.
Superintendent Ann Clark and CMS attorney George Battle III said the regulation follows the guidance of a federal appeals court ruling and was not designed as an act of defiance against HB2
Elsewhere, among North Carolina’s largest school districts, the scale of compliance with federal directives ranges.
In Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools, officials converted single-stall bathrooms for middle and high school students to gender-neutral options – before the issue became politically charged earlier this year. District spokesman Jeff Nash on Monday said that was a “bold decision” in the past by administrators.
“At the time, that was considered forward thinking because it wasn’t a mandate from the government or even from our school board,” he wrote in an email to McClatchy. “Instead, it was the result of in-house conversations and the leadership’s desire to create safe and comfortable bathroom options.”
Neither HB2 or the latest federal input has changed the day-to-day operations for bathroom use, Nash said.
“Our students were already provided with a safer, more comfortable option,” he said. “And, there was no controversy regarding the conversion of these bathrooms.”
In Wake County schools, a spokeswoman said only the district attorney could determine whether the district is complying with federal guidelines but the procedures she described for transgender bathroom use appear to at least partially meet the requirements.
The district works to make accommodations on a case-by-case basis, said spokeswoman Lisa Luten.
Sometimes, Luten said, transgender students are able to access multi-stall restrooms based on their gender identity. In other cases, she said, students are directed to use single-user facilities.
The reasons why some students have different arrangements vary and can’t be traced back to just one qualifier, she said. For example, Luten said, not all transgender students want to use multi-stall facilities and some non-transgender students ask for more privacy or need single-stall bathrooms for other reasons.
In Durham County schools, officials say they’ve kept the same practices despite HB2 and federal guidelines. That practice includes directing transgender students toward private facilities, such as staff bathrooms or single-occupancy restrooms.
The students and the families currently affected by this seem to be satisfied and have not asked for access to gendered multi-stall bathrooms, said Chrissy Deal, Durham school district spokeswoman. Federal guidelines on bathroom use in schools state that separate, private facilities for transgender students are permissible – so long as the option is available for all students and so long as transgender students aren’t forced to only use single-stall facilities.
Concerns about safety
Opponents of policies that accommodate the bathroom needs of transgender students have argued that it’s an issue of safety for non-transgender students.
In reality, however, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students face the greater risk of harassment and assault, especially transgender students, and supporters say the bathroom discussion should be focused on protecting their safety.
According to FBI statistics, more than 20 percent of reported hate crimes were attacks based on sexual orientation and gender identity – second only to race, and more than attacks based on religious bias.
Although some state attorneys general and legislators have taken the federal government to court over its directive instructing all public school districts to allow transgender students to use restrooms that match their gender identity, school districts in those very states have quietly dealt with the issue with relative ease.
And students, rather than state officials or school administrators, are often at the forefront in pushing for the change.
Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, a New York-based organization that supports LGBT-inclusive policies for teachers and students, said school leaders and students live with the issue and understand it better than elected officials do.
“If they were listening to local authorities,” she said, “they’d get out of the way.”
If (elected officials) were listening to local authorities, they’d get out of the way.
Eliza Byard, executive director, Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network
Atherton High School in Louisville, Kentucky, has had a policy in place for two years that allows transgender students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity, and Principal Thomas Aberli says there have been no problems.
“The most recent federal guidelines are aligned with what we’ve been doing for the past two years,” Aberli said in an interview.
Despite some concerns that permitting transgender students to use the appropriate bathroom might threaten the safety and privacy of other students, Aberli said that hasn’t happened at Atherton.
“We have several transgender students now,” he said. “It’s just kind of a non-issue.”
In March, Springfield Central High School in Massachusetts converted two single-user faculty bathrooms into two gender-neutral bathrooms, one each for faculty and students. Principal Thaddeus Tokarz said transgender students aren’t required to use it, though some choose to do so.
“I believe we make it a point to have them use the bathroom they feel most comfortable with,” Tokarz said.