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How Federal Guidelines on Bathrooms for Transgender Students Affect NYC

By Amy Zimmer | May 17, 2016 7:23am
 New York City was already ahead of the curve on bathrooms for transgender students.
New York City was already ahead of the curve on bathrooms for transgender students.
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DNAinfo/Janet Upadhye

MANHATTAN — The Obama administration issued a directive Friday to the nation’s public schools, telling them to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms that match their gender identity.  

Signed by the departments of Education and Justice amid the White House’s legal fight with North Carolina over the issue, the guidelines set out to ensure that "transgender students enjoy a supportive and nondiscriminatory school environment.”

While they don’t carry the force of law, they do carry the power of the purse: Schools that don’t abide by the guidelines could face loss of federal funding.

But New York has several guidelines already in place that put it ahead of the curve in many ways when it comes to addressing how to accommodate transgender and gender non-conforming students.

The city's Education Department issued protocols two years ago specifying that students should be allowed to use bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their gender identities. 

“Every child in New York City deserves an equitable and excellent education, free from discrimination of any kind, and that includes access to bathrooms,” said Jared Fox, the DOE's LGBT Community Liaison. “We have guidelines in place to ensure every school building provides a safe and supportive learning environment that allows students to use the bathroom of their gender identity.”

► If a student, for example, requests more privacy when going to the bathroom or changing, the school must provide it, whether that means providing access to a unisex bathroom — perhaps in the nurse's office — or finding a private area or having a separate changing schedule, officials noted.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, speaking at a City Council budget hearing Monday, noted that the guidelines are implemented differently "school by school," and while some schools have already adopted such measures as unisex bathrooms, "it is a work in progress," the chancellor noted.

"It includes training of teachers and having parent meetings," Fariña said, adding that Fox has been going to all schools to meet with parent coordinators to help guide them on how to have conversations with parents about gender issues. "Students are much better at accepting it than adults."

DOE officials also noted that right now they're working with schools on signage issues.

The New York State Education Department also issued its own guidelines last summer to help foster safe and inclusive educational environments for transgender students and to help schools comply with local, state and federal laws concerning bullying, harassment, discrimination and student privacy.

► The New York City Human Rights law was amended in 2002 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity and gender expression in employment, housing and public accommodations.

► Last December, the city’s Commission on Human Rights released new legal enforcement guidance on gender identity-related protections under the Human Rights Law, including rights regarding access to single-sex facilities consistent with their gender identity and gender expression.

► Mayor Bill de Blasio signed an Executive Order in March to reinforce and clarify the law for city agencies so that city employees know their rights and also know their obligations with respect to members of the public. It requires training for employees and posting of the policy not only for employees but also for members of the public who use city facilities.

"The new guidance from the Obama administration on transgender youth in schools reaffirms a basic human right,” first lady Chirlane McCray, honorary chairwoman of the Commission on Gender Equity, said in a statement. “No one, especially a child, should be denied a bathroom when she or he needs one. Growing up is already tough.”

Beyond the bathroom issue, the federally issued guidance also covers the use of names and pronouns, athletics, single-sex classes and overnight accommodations, among others.

Even though the city and state already had their own guidelines, Bobby Hodgson, an attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union, considered the federal guidelines important to codifying the local policies, adding that they recognize “many of the common ways transgender students have been discriminated against.”

The NYCLU, he noted, still gets calls from parents from around the state about potential discrimination against transgendered students.

There have not, however, been such calls from families in New York City in recent years, he noted — adding that doesn’t mean there aren’t students out there whose rights might be being violated or schools out there that don’t know what they should be doing to create safe and welcoming environments.

He was hopeful that with the publication of the new guidance, it would help more people know their rights and the rules.

DOE officials noted that there were no formal plans at this point to update its guidelines based on the federal directive, but said that the department was continually looking for ways to expand protections to transgender students.

“Because this is an evolving area for school districts,” the city’s guidelines state, “some of this guidance will undoubtedly change over time.”