Otter, Ybarra rip White House ‘guidance’ on transgender students

Calling it an overreach and a federal “power play,” Idaho Republican officials Friday criticized President Obama’s administration for issuing “guidance” on transgender students — and access to school facilities.

Butch Otter
Gov. Butch Otter said the state ‘will explore every available option’ in response to the federal guidelines.

Gov. Butch Otter hinted at a lawsuit, and said he believed the federal guidelines would not survive a legal challenge.

“This federal ‘guidance’ dictates solutions to very personal and sensitive matters that should be left to local school administrators, school boards, teachers, parents, students and communities,” Otter said in a prepared statement. “This action creates needless concern and confusion for students, parents and educators.”

Under the policy, students would be allowed to use school facilities, such as restrooms, “consistent with their gender identity.”

John King EWA photo
Greg Toppo of USA Today, left, facilitates a keynote by U.S. Secretary of Education John King at the Education Writers Association’s 69th national seminar last week. (Photo by Katherine Taylor for EWA)

“Educators want to do the right thing for students, and many have reached out to us for guidance on how to follow the law,” Education Secretary John King said in a news release Friday morning. “We must ensure that our young people know that whoever they are or wherever they come from, they have the opportunity to get a great education in an environment free from discrimination, harassment and violence.”

The Education Department and the U.S. Department of Justice issued a joint statement on the transgender issue.

The federal policy covers four key points:

  • Schools will be expected to respond promptly and effectively to student harassment, “including harassment based on a student’s actual or perceived gender identity, transgender status, or gender transition.”
  • Schools must treat students consistent with their gender identity, “even if their school records or identification documents indicate a different sex.”
  • Students will be allowed to participate in activities and use school facilities consistent with their gender identity.
  • Schools will be expected to protect transgender students’ privacy.

At first, state superintendent Sherri Ybarra declined comment on the federal guidelines. But late Friday afternoon — after Otter issued his statement — Ybarra joined in the criticism.

Ybarra
State superintendent Sherri Ybarra accused the White House of “using our most vulnerable students” and threatening federal education funding.

“This is yet another example of an extreme top-down approach that won’t change day-to-day bathroom use — schools in Idaho are already following bathroom procedures set forth by the U.S. Department of Education,” Ybarra said in a statement.

Ybarra and Otter both criticized the Obama administration for linking the guidelines to federal Title IX funding. The 1972 federal education law forbids schools from discriminating against students based on gender.

“Threatening to withhold federal Title IX funding for failure to comply with this offensive attempt at social engineering only harms our children,” said Otter.

It was not immediately clear how much Idaho funding could be affected.

Education groups took a wait-and-see approach to Friday’s news.

The Idaho School Boards Association is reviewing the White House guidelines. In July, the ISBA issued its own set of draft guidelines designed to protect LGBT student rights — and designed to suggest policy to the state’s school trustees. The ISBA policy called for gender-neutral dress codes, separate bathrooms and changing rooms for transgender students and language allowing transgender students to participate in overnight school trips.

At first glance, the ISBA’s language on bathrooms seems to align with the White House guidelines, government affairs director Jessica Harrison said Friday afternoon.

The ISBA guidelines read, in part: “Students will be allowed to use the restrooms and locker rooms that correspond to the gender identity they consistently assert at school. No student will be required to use facilities that conflict with his or her gender identity consistently asserted at school.”

Harrison was unsure how many of Idaho’s 115 districts have adopted the ISBA guidelines. “They’re just models that we put out as options for districts to use,” she said.

The Idaho Association of School Administrators had no immediate response to the White House guidelines. However, some school administrators have already made accommodations for transgender students, executive director Rob Winslow said Friday.

Meanwhile, the conservative Idaho Freedom Foundation called the guidelines a sign that the state has ceded control over education policy.

“Today, we’re peeved because we at the local level no longer have authority to say where our own kids can relieve themselves,” the foundation’s Wayne Hoffman said in a guest opinion. “But Obama isn’t the one who opened the bathroom door to the latest outrageous federal edict. We did.”

The administration’s statement comes after North Carolina and Mississippi passed so-called “bathroom laws” limiting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents.

Speaking last week at the Education Writers Association’s national seminar in Boston, King called the state laws “hateful,” and said they send a “deeply problematic message” to LGBT students.