PALMER — In what appears to be a first for Alaska, transgender students in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District are now banned from using bathrooms and changing facilities that match their gender identity.
That’s despite protests that the policy could violate federal anti-discrimination laws. The decision also complicates a fundraising effort to create an all-gender restroom at Colony High School.
Reports of a “boy” using a Colony girls locker room — most likely a transgender girl, advocates say — triggered an outcry by hundreds of parents. At a packed a Mat-Su school board meeting last month, the board adopted a temporary policy overturning guidelines in place for more than seven years.
The school board on Wednesday voted 5-1 to adopt the policy permanently. Transgender students must now use bathrooms corresponding to their gender at birth or ask for a private option, usually the nurse’s office.
Board members in favor of the change did not make any comments during the vote nor at the end of the meeting. School board president Ryan Ponder, one of three members proposing the change, did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Civil rights advocates say Wednesday night’s decision apparently makes Mat-Su the only school district in Alaska specifically banning transgender students from their preferred accommodations. The school district in June also approved Alaska’s first local ban on transgender girls participating in girls sports.
During Wednesday’s testimony, one parent called the policy “thinly veiled discrimination against transgender students based on hateful and false stereotypes that gay and transgender individuals are predators and threats to health and safety.” Others pointed to studies showing that transgender youths experience higher risk of suicide.
Colony junior Morgan Clemmer, who identifies as nonbinary, told the board that bathrooms are a daily “minefield” for transgender students.
“Every trip is a reminder that we’re not normal,” Clemmer said.
An internal argument results, Clemmer said: Use the “wrong” bathroom or risk getting stared at or bullied? Or just decide it’s not worth it and try to “hold it” for hours until school is over.
It’s unclear what Wednesday night’s vote means for the Clemmer family’s efforts to create an all-gender facility at Colony. A proposed amendment adding language allowing students to use gender-neutral bathrooms failed.
Clemmer’s mother, Teresa, started a Gofundme page that as of Thursday had raised more than $5,000 to provide funding for a gender-neutral bathroom, an idea supported by more than 150 Colony students who have signed a petition.
Now the board’s decision constrains the school’s options for moving forward with the all-gender facility, Teresa Clemmer wrote in an update Wednesday night, but administrators told her they’ll use the money “in a way that will help improve the bathroom situation for trans and nonbinary kids.”
A school district spokeswoman did not respond to a request for more information Thursday about the policy and its effect on adding gender-neutral bathrooms.
The rule also raises concerns about the potential for legal challenges, according to the only school board member who voted against it, former Wasilla High School principal Dwight Probasco.
At the advice of counsel, board president Ponder said during the meeting, the board approved an amendment that removed language giving parents or guardians “a cause of action” against the district for failing to comply with the policy.
“This policy is built on sand,” Probasco said. “I do not believe it will stand the test of time. I do believe a decision on this will be determined in court.”
The effects of the policy are frightening, testified Mike Garvey with the Alaska affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has contended that sex discrimination is illegal under both the state and federal constitutions.
“It’s stigmatizing and discriminatory to force transgender students from common spaces and single them out as this policy does,” Garvey said.
The original recommendation to review the district’s longstanding facility use guidelines, from the board’s three-member policy committee, was based on the actions of a federal judge in Tennessee who in July blocked the Biden administration from enforcing an executive order designed to protect the LGBTQ community from school and workplace discrimination.
Some states have legislated the issue. In 2016, North Carolina passed a law limiting transgender people’s access to bathrooms in schools and other public facilities, according to an article by nonprofit education news organization Chalkbeat. This year, two more states passed school bathroom laws and eight passed restrictions on transgender student-athletes.
It could be years before the Supreme Court weighs in on transgender student rights, leaving lower courts across the country to issue potentially contradictory rulings, experts told Chalkbeat.
Transgender students have challenged policies that prevent them from using bathrooms or locker rooms consistent with their gender identity in at least 11 cases in state and federal courts, the article says. The students prevailed in each case.