Students and area residents react to a speaker during a Pickens County Board of Education meeting to address questions and concerns about transgender students and the bathrooms they can use at Pickens County High School on Monday, Oct. 14, 2019, in Jasper. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

NEW DETAILS: Transgender bathroom issue riles Pickens parents

A standing-room only crowd squeezed into the Pickens County High auditorium Monday to discuss the rights of transgender students. 

The school board set the special meeting to hear residents’ concerns about a recent decision to let a transgender student use the restroom for the gender that student identifies with. Prior to the meeting, Superintendent Carlton Wilson said he had gotten death threats since announcing that decision. 

Wilson had cited as part of his reason an 11th Circuit Court ruling that hasn't gone into effect yet. He admitted he was misinformed and announced that he has put the decision on hold until he and the board can discuss the issue further.

That did little, however, to stop the criticism that came from hundreds of parents Monday night.

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Many in the crowd of nearly 900 felt the rights of others were being ignored in the school district’s handling of the bathroom question.

Nathan Barfield said he has two children who are now being made uncomfortable because a few students aren’t satisfied with the accommodations made for them.

Like many school systems in the state, Pickens County has allowed students who don’t want to use the restroom for their birth gender to use a single-person facility. “This is the first time that a student has challenged us to use the male restroom,” Wilson said previously. “Until now, it’s been a compromise,” with transgender students allowed to use gender-neutral teacher restrooms.

A letter on the district website announcing Monday’s meeting said, “The board has not developed policies on transgender students” but notes federal court decisions “establish the right of a transgender student to use the restroom which the student identifies with,” and says that’s what the district is doing.

“Most people won’t say anything because they fear retaliation,” said Barfield. “Accommodations have already been made for transgender students. This is nothing but a political stunt to gain attention!”

The thunderous applause and shouts of “Amen!” indicated many agreed.

Kino Ciel Stanfield came to the microphone and nervously admitted he was part of the very small population of transgender Americans. A 2017 Pickens High graduate, he said he began his transition shortly after graduation.

“To transition isn’t something taken lightly,” he said. “I spoke to doctors and specialists and we came to the conclusion that this was best for me.”

Stanfield said even though there wasn’t a policy in place while he was in school, he used the single-stall bathroom in the nurse’s office and similar facilities because it was easier. He said he was more concerned about everyone else’s comfort than his own.

Jordan Stewart, a 2017 Pickens High graduate, said he came out as gay his junior year and faced bullying of a different kind.

“What you don’t understand is that a trans man is a man and a trans woman is a woman,” he said. “They just want to be able to go to the bathroom and do their business like everyone else. Too many LGBTQ youth avoid using the bathroom at all at school, to the detriment of their health. “

The district website posting said: “The High School staff monitors all restrooms during class changes; we are asking the staff to be even more diligent in their duties to ensure that … safety concerns do not materialize.” Wilson said he’s met with an architect to redesign school restrooms, and single-stall restrooms in the high school are still available to any student who wants to use gender-neutral facilities.

A prevalent theme among those opposed to the school district spending tax payer dollars on remodeling bathrooms was that this would be just the tip of the iceberg.

“Once you give into this, you’ll open the floodgates,” said Lisa Ray, who told the audience her daughter said she’s OK with the demands of the transgender student.

The furor in Pickens is just the latest time controversy about school bathrooms has flared.

The Obama administration issued guidance for public schools in 2016 saying schools should let students use bathrooms matching their gender identity or risk losing federal education dollars. Georgia joined 10 other states in a lawsuit against that directive, and the Trump administration rescinded it in 2017.

“How these issues are resolved is a local decision,” Meghan Frick, communications director for the state education department, said Monday, and Georgia districts have addressed it in various ways. Some deal with it on a case-by-case basis.

Atlanta Public Schools let students use “the restroom that conforms to their gender identify,” district spokesman Ian Smith said, and “our schools provide alternative options to provide comfort and privacy for transgender students. For example, the students are allowed to use keyed restrooms located throughout our schools, if they prefer to do so.”

Gwinnett County schools have “sex-designated restroom facilities, while offering gender-neutral facilities to any student who does not wish to use the restroom facility designated for his or her biological sex,” said spokeswoman Sloan Roach.

Cherokee and Forsyth County schools offer the use of single-stall restrooms as an alternative to boys’ or girls’ bathrooms.

Federal laws and transgender issues

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