California Schools Adjust To New Transgender Rights Law

School districts are busy preparing a new law by reviewing locker room layouts, scheduling sensitivity training for coaches, assessing who will sleep where during overnight field trips and reconsidering senior portrait dress codes. The new law spells out the rights of transgender students in grades K-12 and is set to take effect in California. However, its full introduction is not certain. The law, the nation’s first requiring public schools to let children use sex-segregated facilities and participate in the gender-specific activities of their choice, could end up suspended within days of its January 1st launch if a referendum to repeal it qualifies for the November ballot.

A coalition of conservative groups called Privacy for All Students has collected hundreds of thousands of signatures to obtain a public vote on the law, passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown. Counties have until Jan. 8 to verify them through random spot-checking. The secretary of state will approve the referendum, determine that it failed, or order a review of every signature depending on how many are found to be valid.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen when kids come back from their holiday vacation,” said Republican state Sen. Steve Knight, who voted against the law. “Are there going to be 15-year-old girls talking in the bathroom and in walks a boy? What are they going to do? Scream? Run out?”

According to Lisa Leff and Julie Watson of The Seattle Times, the acting assumption of the California School Boards Association is that the law will stand and that, even if it does not, existing state and federal anti-discrimination laws, as well as year-old California Interscholastic Federation rules under which athletes may petition to play on a sports team that does not correspond with their biological sex, already compel schools to accommodate transgender students. Schools have been advised by the association to handle requests on a case-by-case basis and with parental input, if possible, but to be prepared to make private changing arrangements both for transgender students and for classmates who might object to dressing with them.

“We did strike a balance between the sensitivities associated with gender identity, not only for those students who experience a change in their gender status but the students who would be in the same facilities, in the same classrooms and on the same teams,” General Counsel Keith Bray said.

Legal challenges have sprung up across the country involving transgender students filing actions for the right to use facilities that match their expressed identities. For instance, the director of Colorado’s civil rights board in June ruled in favor of a 6-year-old transgender girl who had been prevented from using the girl’s bathroom at school. In the month that followed, to settle a complaint brought by a student prevented from staying with other boys during a school-sponsored overnight science camp, the Arcadia Unified School District in California agreed to train its staff on transgender issues.

Since 2003, the San Francisco Unified School District has had a policy similar to the new law, and the Los Angeles Unified School District, the state’s largest, adopted one in 2005. Additionally, the school boards in Berkeley, Sacramento, and Pacifica followed suit earlier this month.

An Oakland lawyer who represents school districts in Northern California, Namita Brown, said that educators are less concerned about installing shower screens or having enough private restroom stalls than figuring out a way “to tone the fervor in the parent community.”

“The bottom line is districts are in this impossible place where our primary job is to offer quality education and we are suddenly facing some upset constituents,” Brown said.