Bathrooms and locker rooms have become the unlikely frontlines for fiery disputes about how or whether to accommodate LGBTQ+ students in public schools.
The supercharged debates have disrupted school board meetings, raised the temperature during legislative hearings, and sparked a public flareup between the attorney general and a leading education organization.
The most recent development: a new law that goes into effect July 1 and bars transgender students at public schools from using multiple-person bathrooms, locker rooms, or hotel rooms that correspond with their gender identity.
It means that if students or parents are unhappy with local policies, trustees, superintendents, and principals will be able to point fingers at the state, instead of bearing the brunt themselves.
But not all are happy with the new law.
Some worry that transgender or non-binary kids will be singled out and segregated from peers. For example, a transgender student may have to use a special, single-person bathroom, locker room, or hotel room, rather than sharing multiple-person facilities like their peers.
And there’s a chance that litigation could stymie the legislation before it’s enacted. The American Civil Liberties Union has challenged comparable Idaho laws, such as the transgender athletics ban.
“I think all of us are still trying to digest what happens next,” said Quinn Perry, deputy director for the Idaho School Boards Association.
The new law: discrimination, protection, or much-needed guidance?
Andy Grover, executive director of the Idaho Association of School Administrators, said the new law has “parts that we really don’t agree with,” but district leaders are relieved they won’t have to make divisive decisions.
He compared the bathroom policy controversy to debates over masking during the pandemic.
“School districts were left standing alone and we got beat up by both sides. We were in a no-win situation, and this is very similar,” he said. “Both sides wanted access, and we wanted direction.”
The language in Senate Bill 1100, which Gov. Brad Little signed into law on March 22, reveals some of the fears fueling the division.
“Requiring students to share restrooms and changing facilities with members of the opposite biological sex generates potential embarrassment, shame, and psychological injury to students, as well as increasing the likelihood of sexual assault, molestation, rape, voyeurism, and exhibitionism,” the bill reads.
Similar comments have frequently surfaced in recent political debates.
In January, Sen. Chris Trakel, R-Caldwell, told local school trustees that allowing students to use facilities that align with their gender identity would put all students’’ “moral health and safety at risk.”
A few weeks later, Attorney General Raul Labrador said such policies would “endanger” students.
And in February, Trakel took the unusual step of testifying on behalf of the bathroom bill before the Senate Education Committee, urging members to “vote in favor of this bill, and don’t wait until some little girl is raped or molested in a bathroom.”
Critics have clapped back against that narrative.
“Instances of trans students harming other students — we have not yet seen that, we won’t see that,” Amy Dundon of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Idaho chapter told the House Education Committee in March.
Dundon characterized SB 1100 as discriminatory, a view shared by the Human Rights Commission, which called it “anti-LGBTQ”.
“LGBTQ+ people in Idaho deserve the opportunity to live their lives with dignity and respect,” the group said in a March press release, adding that the bathroom bill and others like it “will not accomplish anything other than to further alienate and stigmatize those already on the margins of life in this state.”
Nationwide, lesbian, gay, and bisexual students report being bullied on school property about twice as often as their straight peers and are at greater risk for suicide, according to data from a 2019 Centers for Disease Control survey.
Idaho’s Bathroom Policy Debate: A Timeline
— Jan. 10: Caldwell School District trustees abruptly adjourn a board meeting after shouts and threats from patrons disrupt a public hearing on a proposed LGBTQ+ rights policy.
— Jan. 18: The Caldwell School Board postpones a second hearing on the policy “due to safety concerns.”
— Jan. 25: Attorney General Raul Labrador questions legality of “dangerous” LGBTQ+ policy.
— Jan. 30: The Idaho School Boards Association upholds its LGBTQ+ model policy in response to Labrador’s questioning.
— Feb. 14: Caldwell trustees delay action on proposed LGBTQ+ rights policy to await lawmakers’ decisions on the bathroom bill.
— Feb. 23: Senate Education Committee approves the bathroom bill.
— March 9: Senate approves bathroom bill.
— March 15: House Education Committee approves bathroom bill.
— March 16: House approves bathroom bill, sending it to Little’s desk.
— March 22: Little signs the bill.
— July 1: The new bathroom law will go into effect.
What the law will look like when enacted in schools
Perry said the ISBA will rewrite its LGBTQ+ model policy — a version of which is on the books at about a third of Idaho’s school districts and charters — to adhere to the new state law.
According to the law, schools must maintain separate restrooms and changing facilities according to sex assigned at birth.
Basically, transgender, non-binary, intersex, or queer students would not be allowed to use bathrooms, lockers rooms, or hotel rooms based on their gender identity. However, accommodations could be made for them to use single-person facilities instead.
Schools who don’t follow the law could be held liable in court — and if found guilty would have to pay $5,000, plus funds for psychological, emotional, and physical harm suffered by the claimant, as well as the claimant’s attorney’s fees and costs.
Any deviations could be costly. But, as Perry pointed out, following the law as written could carry another kind of cost — like singling out students.
For example, on overnight school trips, four students are often assigned to share each hotel room. A transgender child could be accommodated by having their own room, but that could stigmatize that child.
“No child should ever be forced to sleep by themselves unless all children are required to sleep by themselves,” Perry said. “I don’t know yet how, practically, it will play out.”
And then there’s federal law to consider.
ISBA’s model policy was initially drafted with Title IX protections in mind (In 2021, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights confirmed that Title IX protects students from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and explained it will enforce Title IX.)
“It’s too soon yet to determine whether or not there will be a challenge (to the new state law) in accordance with Title IX regulations and if (a civil rights group) will try to intervene with litigation,” Perry said. “We’re just sort of waiting and seeing how it’s all going to play out.”
Further reading: Transgender youth fights for bathroom access in Jerome