When a student in Fairfax County Public Schools identifies as transgender and they bring it to the attention of their school staff, the school brings in the student’s parents and together they work out a tailored bathroom plan: where to use single-stall or group bathroom facilities on campus that will make the student feel most comfortable.
That’s the current practice in the school system with a population that exceeds 186,000 students, according to School Board At-Large member Ryan McElveen.
McElveen believes it’s also in compliance with new national guidance released Friday, May 13 by the Obama administration, that transgender students should be allowed to use the bathroom of the sex with which they identify.
The bathroom issue was already a controversial topic a year ago, when the previous board voted in favor of adding “gender identity” to its nondiscrimination policy. Even though, as McElveen and others admitted, the policy change would not change anything in practice in the schools.
“We knew it was the right thing to do at the time,” McElveen said in an interview after Friday’s announcement. “[The guidance] clarifies we were on the right path then.”
Opponents voiced concerns for the privacy and safety of their students. They worried about other students taking advantage of the bathroom policy to harass their children. But so far, McElveen said, he hasn’t heard a single case of someone identifying as transgender then getting into a bathroom and causing trouble.
After the board’s policy change, they appointed a special consultant to review the school system’s policies and practices regarding discrimination and transgender students. The consultant is meant to compare FCPS with best practices in other schools around the country and report back as to how closely Fairfax County complies.
The consultant’s work is ongoing, McElveen said, without giving an estimated completion date. “We continue to work to ensure we’re in compliance, that all our students are afforded the same respect and dignity based out our policies.”
Fairfax County Public Schools didn’t release a formal response to the guidance. And when contacted, Chairman Pat Hynes declined to speak on behalf of the entire board.
“It's my personal opinion,” Hynes said in an email, “that the board's decision of last spring to include gender identity in the FCPS non-discrimination policy is in line with the guidelines just issued by the Obama administration.”
The guidance from Obama also suggests that noncompliance may cost some schools their federal funding. When this was brought up as a possibility during the May 2015 board meeting to change the nondiscrimination policy, School Board representative for the Springfield District Elizabeth Schultz questioned the Constitutional authority of such an action.
Now that it’s come up again, She hasn’t changed her tune.
“We’re in a situation where we ‘Jumped the Shark’ as a board,” Schultz said. “Those who were politically motivated to do so, made a political statement, as did the President, the Attorney General, the Department of Justice, on Friday.
“If the statement is: ‘You will comply with blank or else, you will lose federal funding,’ then what can’t be put in the fill in the blank?” Schultz continued.
If the Obama administration were to follow through with cutting funding to schools, Schultz is critical of the impact it would have on cutting programs for low income students in schools.
“Are you writing a check for transgender bathroom access off the backs of poor hungry kids?” she said. “This has been foisted upon the nation’s school districts with little regard for operationalizing and paying for such effort.”
At this point, McElveen doesn’t anticipate any further board discussion, unless another member asks for some. Or the consultant completes their review.
But Schultz thinks it will continue to be a topic on the forefront.
“We are going to watch a huge diversion of public attention and money, to the wrong things, instead of toward promoting rigor and achievements by the nation’s students,” she said. “This is problematic in so many ways. It’s not something I relish being right about.”