Grace Dolan-Sandrino, a 17-year-old transgender high school student, was prepared for the Department of Education to let her down.
The federal agency had done so already a year ago, she says, when it rescinded an Obama-era guidance advising schools to allow trans students use of bathroom facilities that matched their gender identity.
Dolan-Sandrino, however, didn’t expect the department to openly abandon students like her by refusing to investigate or take action on complaints filed by children and teens whose schools implement discriminatory bathroom policies. But, as of Monday, that became the agency’s official position.
“Now it’s blatant and explicit that there is not only going to be no support, but there will be no recognition of the issue,” says Dolan-Sandrino, who lives in Washington, D.C. “The DOE is saying to [school administrators] it’s OK that you don’t want to recognize these students in your building, it’s OK you don’t want to recognize their humanity and their basic human rights.”
Dolan-Sandrino is one of many trans students for whom the agency’s new policy unleashed painful emotions.
James van Kuilenburg, an 18-year-old senior who successfully advocated for comprehensive transgender school policies in his own school district in Frederick County, Maryland, says the education department’s decision confirmed his worst fears.
“It’s hard to think about,” he says. “My government just told me I don’t matter.”
“It’s hard to think about. My government just told me I don’t matter.”
Legal advocates who have represented trans students in lawsuits against school officials say that the department’s decision doesn’t negate recent court victories that required schools to adopt non-discriminatory bathroom policies.
“The department turned a blind eye and seeks to dismantle the protections children have … but that doesn’t mean the law has changed,” says Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, a staff attorney for the advocacy organization Lambda Legal.
Gonzalez-Pagan represented three transgender students who sued the Pine-Richland school district in Pennsylvania in 2016, after officials adopted a bathroom policy that forced them to use unisex facilities or the bathroom that matched their “biological sex.” The students, which included the sister of singer Jackie Evancho, won their case last fall. (Evancho sang at Donald Trump’s inauguration and pushed to meet the president to discuss transgender rights.)
Gonzalez-Pagan says that the ruling in his case and others like it reflect “court after court” pointing to the Constitution and the federal law known as Title IX, which prohibits discrimination in education on the basis of sex, as affirming the rights of trans students to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity.
“The law is clear,” says Gonzalez-Pagan. “Surprisingly, they think the law is not what the court says but what the administration wants it to be.”
After rescinding the Obama administration’s guidance last year, Betsy DeVos, secretary of education, said that states and school districts should figure out how to best accommodate students.
“Surprisingly, they think the law is not what the court says but what the administration wants it to be.”
“Where students, including transgender students, are penalized or harassed for failing to conform to sex-based stereotypes, that is sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX,” Liz Hill, a spokesperson for the department, told Buzzfeed. “In the case of bathrooms, however, long-standing regulations provide that separating facilities on the basis of sex is not a form of discrimination prohibited by Title IX.”
Elissa Ridenour, a 19-year-old college freshman from Pennsylvania who was part of the Pine-Richland suit, says the legal victory gave her a sense of “security” in knowing that the law does protect trans students from discrimination. But she blasted the education department’s decision, noting that trans youth are often under incredible strain during adolescence.
“Some family situations might not be so stellar, their parents might not be so accepting, they could be homeless,” she says. “Then to have to go to school where you’re faced with bathroom discrimination … that’s something that can really affect someone.”
Dolan-Sandrino, who met with the Obama administration to discuss transgender policies and also met with DeVos last year to discuss the same subject, says the secretary has the power to set a positive example of inclusivity for educators across the country.
Last year, @BetsyDeVosED promised that she would work to ensure that, as a part of the school community, transgender students would be protected from harassment and discrimination. Yesterday, she turned her back on them. Statement from @GLSEN: https://t.co/xovHIMlTyw
— CAP Education (@EdProgress) February 13, 2018
“There are school districts that recognize trans students exist and are developing protections, but there are too many that are not and will use this as an excuse to ignore trans students,” says Dolan-Sandrino.
Van Kuilenburg, the high school senior from Maryland, is worried that the department’s decision sends a harmful message to fellow classmates and teachers, who could be potential allies of transgender youth and adults. They might view the policy as permission not to take concerns and complaints about bathroom access seriously. He fears that it might even encourage some people to inflict violence on trans people in school or in the future.
“This lack of protection isn’t just lack of protection — it’s a message that trans people don’t matter,” says van Kuilenburg.
Despite the panic and confusion that van Kuilenburg has felt this week, he’s trying to focus instead on resiliency and the advocacy efforts to make schools safe for trans students.
“If I could say anything to trans youth right now, it would be that you may not be able to see it in your own personal community or online, but right now there are so many people fighting to protect people like you,” he says. “Our community is so determined to survive that we won’t stop right now …”