Though school districts across the country are ramping up to create new policies that follow a directive from the Obama administration that allows transgender students at public schools to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity, some Greater Lowell administrators say their districts have been allotting such rights to students for years.
“From what I’m seeing and hearing, I think a lot of transgender people are using the restrooms for what they identify with, and we have no idea,” said Alisa Chapman, director of compliance and Title IX coordinator at Middlesex Community College.
Gender-neutral bathrooms have been in Westford Academy, as well as the Stony Brook and Blanchard middle schools in Westford, for about two years, Superintendent of Schools Everett Olsen said. Now that the directive has been issued, students can use other restrooms in addition to the gender-neutral ones.
Olsen said the new directive will be discussed at an upcoming staff meeting, but that the school may not need to implement a new plan to address the issue.
“I think we’ve acted responsibly long before the president issued the directive,” he said. “Our commitment to the students is to be understanding and be respectful.”
Olsen said students only need to verbally express their change of gender to teachers and administration.
“The only thing we tell the students is, if they identify as a particular gender, they really cannot be changing their mind or flip-flopping,” he said.
Under the guidance, issued May 13, schools have been told that they must treat transgender students according to their chosen gender identity as soon as a parent or guardian notifies the district that the student’s identity “differs from previous representations or records.” There is no obligation for a student to present a specific medical diagnosis or documents that reflect his or her gender identity, and equal access must be given to transgender students even in instances when it makes others uncomfortable, according to the directive.
Schools that refuse to comply could be hit with civil-rights lawsuits from the government and could face a cutoff of federal aid.
As in Westford, administrators at Lowell Public Schools say they have been working with students who have identified as transgender to provide support and guidance in the schools.
“As a district, we’ve been very active this year to make sure we’re aligning with state and federal guidelines,” said Jeannine Durkin, assistant superintendent for student support services.
Durkin said the district is drafting a policy on the issue that will be presented to the School Committee before the end of the school year.
In Littleton, Superintendent of Schools Kelly Clenchy said the district does not have a specific policy for use of bathrooms, but follows the “Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity” guideline from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which mirrors the guidelines in the Obama directive.
According to a letter sent to schools that receive federal funding from the federal Department of Justice and the federal Department of Education, schools must treat students consistently with their gender identity even if their education record indicates a different gender. For facilities and activities that are sex-segregated, like bathrooms and sports programs, transgender students must be allowed to access what is consistent with their gender identity.
The Department of Education released a 25-page document that gave examples of policies and practices to support transgender students.
The directive reaches beyond just elementary and secondary education. Any school that receives state funding is obligated to follow the directive, which includes state universities and community colleges.
At UMass Lowell, the campuses’ 40 gender-neutral, single-person bathrooms do not have signs with terminology or symbols, just signs that indicate “restroom.”
“Our official university policy, which has broad support from the campus community, is that individuals should choose a restroom that aligns with their gender identity,” reads a statement the university issued to the Lowell City Council on Tuesday night. The policy was enacted earlier this year, according to UML spokeswoman Christine Gillette.
Fitchburg State University follows the universal policy for Massachusetts state universities, according to spokesman Matthew Bruun. The nondiscrimination policy includes gender identity, gender expression and genetic information.
“It is our belief that the latest correspondence from the U.S. Department of Education will not require amendments to any university policy,” Bruun said.
Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner already has a gender-neutral bathroom, in line with state guidelines, according to Executive Vice President Ann McDonald, but its purpose is to provide comfort to students who were questioning or transgender, and not to restrict those students from using traditional bathrooms of the sex with which they identify.
Now the school will focus on educating students and staff on the topic, and adding the new policies and procedures to its affirmative-action plan, McDonald said.
The same will happen at Middlesex Community College as all state community colleges follow an identical policy.
At MCC, which has campuses in Lowell and Bedford, students and faculty are permitted to use any gender-neutral or single-stall restroom on campus, according to Chapman.
“I don’t know that we have an enforcement plan,” she said. “We deal with questions, concerns, complaints as they come up.”
At Middlesex, students can currently use the bathroom that matches the gender on their college record, Chapman said. And if a student wants to change his or her data to indicate he or she has gone through a transition, that student can.
“I don’t think this is going away anytime soon,” Chapman said. “Sometimes you have issues that come and go, but I think this is going to be on the front burner.”
Superintendents from the Billerica, Chelmsford, Dracut, Tewksbury, Tyngsboro, Wilmington, and Nashoba Valley Technical school districts did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.
Follow Melissa Hanson on Twitter and Tout @Melissa__Hanson.
PHRASES TO KNOW
* Gender identity: An individual’s internal sense of gender. Gender identity may be different from or the same as the sex assigned at birth.
* Sex assigned at birth: The sex designation recorded on an infant’s birth certificate.
* Transgender: Individuals whose gender identity is different from the sex they were assigned at birth. A transgender male identifies as male but was assigned the sex of female at birth; a transgender female is someone who identifies as female but was assigned the sex of male at birth.
* Gender transition: The process in which transgender individuals begin asserting the sex that corresponds to their gender identity.
SOURCE: U.S. Departments of Justice and Education