PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — President Barack Obama issued a directive to public schools nationwide Friday saying they must allow transgender students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms that line up with their gender identity.
In non-binding guidance sent from leaders at the Departments of Justice and Education, the Obama administration said public schools are obligated to allow students to use restrooms that are consistent with their gender identity, not with vital or educational records.
The document also provides guidance on terminology and how to handle instances of bullying.
According to Hillary Davis at the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, schools have been slow in addressing transgender issues in the state.
“School districts and state departments of education have been very slow in taking care of these issues,” she said. “In Rhode Island, we’ve had one school district that has successfully put into place a trans student policy – and that was just very, very recently.”
Davis said the policy was put in place in March in Cumberland.
The new federal guidance comes just as the Justice Department sued North Carolina this week over its law requiring transgender people to use public bathrooms, showers and locker rooms that align with their gender at birth.
“We are encouraging all the school districts to go ahead and adopt strong policies before they have a trans student who really needs help,” Davis said. “And we think this guidance that has come out this morning will be very helpful in leading them in the right direction.”
Wendy Becker with Youth Pride, Inc. – who is devoted to LGBT youth services – said discrimination is, and should be a federal issue.
“They [transgender youth] have issues with depression and anxiety,” she said. “We know that there is a great deal of harassment that they have to tolerate in schools. So we need to put an end to it.”
Mike Stenhouse, of the RI Center for Freedom and Prosperity, said the decisions about transgender policies in schools should be made a local level.
“The arbitrary, one-size-fits-all, government-by-political-correctness approach,” he said. “This issue is very sensitive, regardless of how you feel about it. These should be local decisions.”
According to Stenhouse, Friday’s action is an encroachment into a space where the federal government shouldn’t be.
“It’s okay when it comes to economic policy, but when it comes to personal values, I can assure you that the elitists on Smith Hill or in Washington DC, do not know what’s in our best interest,” he said.
Governor Gina Raimondo said she thinks trans students should be able to use the restroom that they identify with.
“We’re going to keep working on it and making sure that school districts continue to do the right thing,” she said.