U.S. Departments of Education and Justice Issue Guidance to Ensure Transgender Students’ Rights

On Friday, the Obama administration issued a letter to every public school district in the country directing them to allow transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity. The guidance is expected to apply to higher education institutions as well.

A joint effort by the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Justice, the letter offers guidelines to ensure “that all students … can attend school in an environment free from discrimination based on sex.”

“There is no room in our schools for discrimination of any kind, including discrimination against transgender students on the basis of their sex,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement. “This guidance gives administrators, teachers, and parents the tools they need to protect transgender students from peer harassment and to identify and address unjust school policies.”

The letter — said to clarify what’s expected of school districts that receive federal funding — comes amid a heated debate over transgender rights in public schools, from K-12 to college. North Carolina has been at the center of the controversy with the passage of a state-wide “bathroom law” in March, which bans transgender people from using public restrooms that don’t match the sex listed on their birth certificate; the law has resulted in a legal battle between North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory and the Department of Justice.

Under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, schools receiving federal funds may not discriminate based on a student’s sex, “including a student’s transgender status,” a press release from the Department of Justice reads. The guidance makes it clear that both the departments of education and justice treat a student’s gender identity as their sex for purposes of enforcing Title IX.

“No student should ever have to go through the experience of feeling unwelcome at school or on a college campus,” U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. said in a statement. “This guidance further clarifies what we’ve said repeatedly — that gender identity is protected under Title IX.”

While the letter does not carry the force of the law, it sends the message that if schools do not comply, they risk losing federal funding.

The guidance also explains schools’ obligation to respond promptly and effectively to sex-based harassment, including that based on a student’s gender identity, transgender status, or gender transition; allow students to participate in sex-segregated activities; and protect students’ privacy related to their transgender status.

LGBTQ groups lauded the announcement, saying it is a validation of transgender rights.

“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,” King said.