Vail Daily column: Patience best path for now
Recently, the Obama administration, in a joint letter from the departments of Justice and Education, issued guidance to public schools on the rights of transgender students, particularly around which restrooms or changing facilities those students should use.
The guidance indicates that a student’s treatment aligns with his or her gender identity “when a student or the student’s parent or guardian, as appropriate, notifies the school administration that the student will assert a gender identity that differs from previous representations or records.”
More directly, the guidance unambiguously means that schools should treat students according to the gender they currently identify with, be that male or female — at least according to the Obama administration’s interpretation of federal civil rights law.
However, this isn’t the end of the story. The guidance offers little in terms of how the process of declaring gender identity would work. Is it the student who does this, or is it the parent or guardian? Is there some verification or formal declaration required, or can a student simply make an announce one day? At this point, it’s not clear.
Further, 11 Republican governor-controlled states (at last count) have filed a lawsuit to block the directive, arguing it is a federal overreach not supported by law and turning schools into “laboratories for a massive social experiment.”
The core legal argument in opposition is that the Obama administration does not have the authority, under law, to enforce this directive. The core social argument is that these states do not wish to have this directive about transgender students become the effective law of the land.
The guidance puts local schools in a bind. Should the guidance be upheld, there would be serious consequences that come with ignoring federal law. These include being under the microscope of what seems like neverending federal investigations, having federal education dollars (which fund important services to some of our neediest students) shut off, or being the target of a civil rights lawsuit.
On the other hand, there is a legitimate possibility, at least in my professional opinion, that the guidance will be struck down by the court.
What does all this mean for us here in Eagle County? To be abundantly clear, our purpose is to prepare students for their futures academically and developmentally. These are also public schools, and we have a strong moral commitment to ensuring that they are safe places for any student to grow and learn.
Far from a novel situation, this issue did not appear out of thin air because of this guidance. Our schools have always had transgender students and students of diverse sexual orientations and we’ve worked — and will continue to work — to make school a safe and welcoming place for these students to learn.
While we intend to protect and value all students, this does not mean that Eagle County Schools (or its superintendent) will take sides on this issue. Positioning the district to be in the middle of what will be a long and arduous legal process to sort out the differences between a Democratic president and 11 Republican governors is a fool’s errand and not in keeping with the aforementioned purpose of our organization.
So, will we adhere to the Obama directive or not? While this will be unsatisfying to partisans on both sides, it’s too soon to tell. I believe patience and a longer strategic view on this conflict are virtues at this point.
With state and school district-specific legal guidance still undeveloped and a federal lawsuit that may upend the whole thing, it would be imprudent to either forcefully reject or blindly follow the guidance until the view of the legal landscape clears a bit.
Fortunately, timing is on our side — at least for now. Schools have dismissed for the summer so we’ll have a precious few more weeks to sort this out and try to make sense of it. We will want to position the district in a way that keeps our primary focus on learning, protects and is respectful of all students and keeps us out of a distracting (and possibly lengthy) legal quagmire.
Looking further ahead, beyond the legal, social and partisan conflicts at hand — I actually believe this issue will be solved in the future by architectural design choices in schools. Throughout the next few decades, as new schools are built or existing ones remodeled, I envision restrooms and changing facilities being redesigned to afford all students greater privacy, which is not a bad thing.
In the meantime, this article may be frustrating to those who wished our schools to enter this conflict by choosing one side or the other. For now, we’re going to remain chiefly focused on the work of teaching and learning.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.