2017-03-15 / Front Page

What Trump's transgender decision means for students


I n a setback to transgender rights advocates and a boon to opponents, the United States Supreme Court announced last week that it would not hear the case of Gavin Grimm, a transgender student living in Gloucester.

The Supreme Court had previously scheduled to hear arguments this month, but decided not to take the case after the Trump administration reversed federal protections for publicly schooled transgender students allowing them to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity. The hot-button topic has unleashed a political firestorm, and the directive the Obama administration issued last year only added fuel to the flames.

While that directive didn’t carry the force of law – and had been blocked from nationwide enforcement by a federal judge – it outlined recommended options and existing policies at some of the nation’s school districts, and carried an implied threat: if school systems didn’t comply, they could eventually face lawsuits or the loss of federal funding.

In late February, the Trump administration reversed the directive, stating that the transgender bathroom debate should be left to the states. The Grimm case will now return to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, where Grimm – who identifies as male – will argue that denying him access to the boys’ restroom is discrimination on the basis of sex under Title IX.

Previously, “the Fourth Circuit deferred substantially to the Obama administration guidance,” says Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor who specializes in federal courts and constitutional law. “Now that that’s no longer in existence, then I think the argument being made by the plaintiff and [the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy organization] Equality Virginia is, OK, we still think that Title IX covers this situation. The [Fourth Circuit] court never got to that issue because it deferred to that guidance from Obama.”

Tobias says the appeal should move quickly through the Fourth Circuit, and will likely be heard by the same three judges who ruled before. Whoever loses that ruling will likely challenge it, asking all 15 active Fourth Circuit judges to hear the case, or go to the Supreme Court directly. James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia, argues that transgender students are protected from discrimination under Title IX and in the Constitution, but a legal decision will clarify this.

“Without a clear ruling from the courts, we have some schools that do an amazing job … and then we have ones that do horrible jobs,” Parrish says. Currently, “it’s up to individuals and their families to advocate for themselves, and we don’t believe that’s a position that they should have to take on.” Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, applauded the Supreme Court’s actions in a statement.

“The Court’s decision to vacate the Fourth Circuit’s earlier ruling and send the case back to reconsider is the logical decision in light of the new administration’s policy to interpret federal law correctly,” Cobb states. “The Obama administration radically distorted a federal law that is meant to equalize educational opportunities for women, consequently risking the privacy, dignity and safety of our public school children.”

Asked about the school system’s stance and policies regarding transgender students, Chesterfield County Public Schools spokesman Shawn Smith issued a statement on behalf of Superintendent James Lane and the School Board: “School leaders will continue to work with individual students and their families to determine appropriate accommodations.” Smith also stated that the Obama directive and its rescission haven’t affected school system policy. ¦

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