Havasu school officials are paying close attention to several lawsuits involving restrooms for transgender students.
Although the Lake Havasu Unified School District does not have a specific policy regarding equal access to bathroom facilities for its transgender student population, several lawsuits across the country, including one scheduled to be heard before the U.S. Supreme Court next year may force educators to remodel their schools.
The suit argues that under federal Title IX and its regulations, a Virginia school must allow a female student, who identifies as a male, to use the boys’ restrooms.
The lawsuit received instant support from the U.S. Education and Justice departments, which ultimately issued the now infamous “Dear Colleague” letter in May. In the letter, the departments threatened to strip federal funding from any school that does not use its locker rooms, showers, restrooms and overnight accommodation on school trips to affirm a student’s gender identity.
Until the case is heard, it’s a matter of waiting to see how the high court rules, said Aggie Wolter, LHUSD director of special services and emergency planning.
“Obviously this is a very timely topic, but it’s not the first time we’ve had student needs come up. We’ve always addressed this on a case by case basis, but a separate facility creates a lot of challenges. We just can’t come in and remodel all of our bathrooms,” Wolter said.
“We are always driven by the law and doing what’s best for everyone, so we are assessing our facilities in the event it does go down that path and determining what would that look like for our district.”
Last month, U.S. District Court Judge Reed O’Connor upheld an injunction that prohibits the departments of education and justice from mandating transgender bathroom policies in Arizona’s districts and schools.
The move was applauded by Arizona educators.
“This decision is a victory for local control and for Arizona schools and students, said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas, in a release.
“The idea that federal bureaucrats know best when it comes to everything, even management of bathroom facilities, is ludicrous.”
Still, the Dear Colleague letter has created uncertainty within the education community.
“I don’t have a good gut feeling right now. The Justice Department’s Office of Civil Rights has issued guidance in the past and this is the first time I’ve seen one challenged this way, said Diana Asseier, LHUSD superintendent.
“Typically when you have a new law enacted then that law will be interpreted through regulation, and the Dear Colleague letter totally sidestepped the regulatory process. They sent it out telling us the law and what they think we need to do. We already have very strong language in our policies about non-discrimination and it would never be our intent to discriminate regardless of what the issue was.”
In Lake Havasu, students have the right to participate fully in classroom instruction which will not be abridged or impaired because of race, color, religion, sex, age, national origin and disability, or any other reason not related to the student’s individual capabilities.
“One of the interesting things I’ve noticed, which is unique coming from a big community, is the kids in Havasu for the most part have grown up together,” Asseier said. “They all know each other and accept each other for who they are. Not to say there aren’t issues, because that would be naive to say that, but it’s not the same as it is in places that have more anonymity.”
LHUSD officials declined to comment if the district has transgender students citing that as a privacy issue.
To stay ahead of what the Supreme Court may rule, school district officials are currently reviewing the district’s policies and working procedures to identify if there are issues that need to be addressed.
“We’ve started to take steps in assessing where we are at, because we are not in any position based on what the Dear Colleague recommendations were to move forward on them tomorrow like it was no big deal. It would require changes to infrastructure and buildings to make that happen,” Wolter said.
“When you have a building that’s 50 years old, your plumbing and changes can be a major remodeling effort. We have facilities that are in ADA compliance based on when they were built, but if you go in and make a change then you have to bring that part of a building into (current) ADA compliance, so a little change can turn into a bigger thing.”