Tuesday, August 20, 2013

New Developments in Title IX and Transgender Students

A recent settlement in California suggests schools will need to be more proactive in accommodating transgender students under Title IX.

In July, the Department of Justice (DoJ) and the Arcadia Unified School District in California reached a resolution agreement based on a complaint that the district violated Title IX by denying a transgender student equal access to education programs and facilities.

The student, whose birth sex was female, has identified as a boy since a young age. With his family's support, he began transitioning from female to male in the fifth grade. He asked to be called by masculine pronouns, adopted a traditionally male first name, and wore male clothes. The student's classmates quickly accepted his transition to male.

The school district, however, was less accommodating. It wouldn't let the student use the boy's bathroom or locker room. When changing for gym class, he had to use the school's health offices, even though he had used the same boys' locker room — without incident — during a summer camp held at the middle school.

And when the boy's class went on an overnight field trip, the district forced the student to stay in his own cabin with a parent while other students shared cabins. The student had requested several other boys as cabin mates, and indeed, several boys had requested him.

After the student filed complaints claiming the school district was violating Title IX, the district reached a resolution agreement with the DoJ. They agreed to permit the student to use male-designated facilities and "otherwise treat the Student as a boy in all respects."

On the heels of this agreement, California passed a law to protect transgender students from sex discrimination and clarify existing protections.

In language that recalls the situation at Arcadia, the bill requires that "a pupil be permitted to participate in sex-segregated school programs and activities, including athletic teams and competitions, and use facilities consistent with his or her gender identity, irrespective of the gender listed on the pupil’s records." The California bill is the first of its kind in the US.


Accommodating Transgender Students

Both the agreement and the new California law indicate a growing understanding among lawmakers and regulators that schools are responsible for accommodating transgender students.

As the resolution agreement between Arcadia and the DoJ states, "All students, including transgender students and students who do not conform to sex stereotypes, are protected from sex-based discrimination under Title IX."

The Arcadia agreement suggests the Department of Education and DoJ's greater willingness to enforce these aspects of Title IX. Erin Buzuvis wrote at Title IX blog that the Arcadia case "represents the first time that the Department of Education has considered under its jurisdiction to enforce Title IX a claim involving discrimination on the basis of transgender gender identity."

Universities and colleges should review their policies and procedures to make sure they have the proper policies and procedures to work with transgender students.
Indeed, in the past few years many universities and colleges have already been experimenting with ways to better accommodate transgender students. Here are a few examples worth considering:

  • Some colleges allow students to include their preferred names and pronouns on a class roster instead of their legal names, so students don't have to 'out' themselves as transgender by correcting a professor in front of a full classroom. 
  • The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith agreed to allow a transgender student who identified as female to use women's restrooms. Previously, she had been restricted to using gender-neutral restrooms.
  • Oxford University in the UK changed its dress code so students don't have to wear ceremonial clothing specific to their gender.
  • Smith College clarified its statement on gender identity and expression to address transgender students at the all-women's school.
Despite these promising developments, there is still considerable debate on some campuses about what constitutes reasonable accommodations for transgender students.

For instance, this August, the UNC Board of Governors halted a plan by its Chapel Hill campus to offer gender-neutral housing, which allows students of different genders to share apartments and suites, sidestepping problems with single-sex housing for transgender students and providing them a safe space on campus.
Schools can expect these debates about gender-neutral housing and access to single-sex facilities to start playing a larger role in discussions about Title IX.

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