By Adam Tobias | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON, Wis. — Sparta Area School District Superintendent John Hendricks is a man of few words when describing the motivation behind his proposal to allow transgender students to use school restrooms of the gender with which they identify.
Unfortunately for Hendricks, Wisconsin Family Action and Alliance Defending Freedom are being loud and clear in their message that such gender identity policies violate a student’s right to bodily privacy and potentially could cost taxpayers by opening up school districts to legal liabilities.
But it’s not like Sparta, a small city of 9,600 in western Wisconsin, is acting alone. More and more school boards in the state and across the country are implementing new guidelines to accommodate transgender individuals, who make up 0.3 percent of the nation’s population.
“The first responsibility of a school board and a school administration is to protect the safety of students and to protect their privacy …When you have these policies, you put those at risk,” Wisconsin Family Action President Julaine Appling told Wisconsin Reporter. “At a minimum, you put the right to privacy at full risk for students when you allow the very, very few people who fall into these transgender situations to use bathrooms reserved for the opposite sex.”
In an Oct. 7 letter sent to Sparta School Board members, Alliance Defending Freedom and Wisconsin Family Action explain that no federal laws require public schools to pass comparable policies. Similar memorandums were sent to school boards in Minnesota and Rhode Island.
Alliance Defending Freedom also provided additional documents outlining alternative actions school districts can take to protect both students and transgender individuals. Those suggestions include providing transgender students with single-stall restrooms, uni-sex bathrooms or the controlled use of a faculty facility.
“It is simply unfathomable that the District would sacrifice the clearly established First and Fourteenth Amendment freedoms of 99.7% of students and parents to satisfy activist demands that students have access to restroom and locker room facilities dedicated to the opposite sex,” the letters say. “The needs of transgender students can easily be accommodated in other ways. And the District should use them rather than compromising others’ rights.”
Steve Starkey, executive director of OutReach, a Wisconsin LGBT community center, told Wisconsin Reporter every step should be taken to ensure transgender students can use the bathrooms in which they feel most comfortable. He also praised the Janesville School Board for taking a “proactive” approach in September by changing its policies on bullying prevention and discrimination for transgender pupils.
“I think that’s a really positive step,” Starkey said. “It’s saying that those transgender individuals are valuable human beings and that they are going to be treated respectfully.”
Starkey also told Wisconsin Reporter he believes prospective lawsuits could be a two-way street. He said it’s certainly possible for a transgender student to sue a school district for not preserving the equal rights of all students.
“Unfortunately, it seems that transgender people don’t have a lot of resources, so bringing a lawsuit like that might not be practical,” Starkey said. “But there is a potential for lawsuits in both directions.”
When asked by Wisconsin Reporter why he proposed gender identity guidelines for his district, Hendricks’ only response was he thinks “it’s always advisable for an organization to have policy so that people have the guidance that they need.” The superintendent declined to elaborate.
It appears some school board members aren’t too receptive to certain aspects of Hendricks’ recommendations, most notably the bathroom provision.
The board of education’s Personnel and Educational Initiatives Committee recently tabled the superintendent’s proposed policy to give officials more time to explore other options and obtain legal advice.
“We want to get some legal opinions on this because it is a very controversial issue, and we want to make sure no matter who students are that they are not discriminated against,” Board of Education Director Karen Wall said. “…We have to look at what’s in the best interest of all students and also consider how our constituents feel about things like this, too. It’s a difficult topic.”
The negative blowback from the community has been significant, with all public-input meetings on the subject drawing standing-room only crowds, according to Wall.
To help appease the concerns of parents, Ward hopes the gender identity policy, if eventually passed, will not include the restroom guidelines. Instead, she would rather focus solely on curbing discrimination and intimidation.
“I see it as an anti-policy to make sure there is some mention in there that (transgender students) will not be harassed because of the gender they identify with,” Ward said.