Schools, activists, disagree over bathroom for transgender students

Associated Press contributed

With a battle in court over gender and school bathrooms brewing, Georgia education leaders say they’ve been handling the issue fine on their own, though advocates for transgendered students disagree.

Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens joined 10 other states Wednesday in a lawsuit against a federal directive telling states to let transgender students choose the bathroom or locker room they feel most comfortable using.

The lawsuit illuminates an issue that many schools would rather handle quietly.

John Zauner, executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association, said the issue arises infrequently. When it does, school leaders find an accommodation. “You usually work with a child and the parent to come to an arrangement,” he said. Schools can offer a variety of options, such as letting a student use a private bathroom in the school office, he said.

The problem with a broad order that blurs gender lines around bathroom use, he and others have said, is the possibility of rowdy behavior among teen-aged boys. They’re likely to storm the girls’ bathroom if given the chance, he said. “When I was in high school, boys did crazy things like that.”

Patrick Faerber, board chairman of the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network’s Atlanta chapter, said Georgia is overreacting.

“I don’t know if it’s worth filing a lawsuit against something that isn’t a law,” he said.

Faerber welcomed federal intervention, and said the state must do more to protect transgendered students. Some schools are looking out for them while others are reluctant to address their needs, he said. He cited a 2013 study by his network that found one in 10 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered public school students in Georgia was punched, kicked or injured with a weapon because of sexual orientation.

“I think those statistics show the governor and Georgia’s politicians have better things to focus on,” Faerber said.

The federal directive is not a law, but helps define the Obama administration’s interpretation of federal law, which could influence the courts. Also, the federal directive, which came out in early May, threatens loss of federal funds and the potential of lawsuits. Georgia gets about $2 billion a year in federal education dollars.

Georgia schools have been reluctant to discuss the contentious issue. The Technical College System of Georgia and University System of Georgia declined to comment Wednesday and in early May and would not discuss their policies on the issue.

But some are talking about the issue publicly. The Starr's Mill High School student newspaper in Fayetteville quoted Principal Allen Leonard about the decision to make visitor and adult bathrooms near the front office gender-neutral: "Having restrooms like this also allows us to make sure we're serving all of our people," Leonard told the student reporters.