What the Government Told Schools About Transgender Students

Guidelines Cover Restrooms, Sports, Proms and More

Picture of a restroom sign reading “Whichever.”
North Carolina Clashes With U.S. Over New Public Restroom Law. Sara D. Davis / Getty Images

On May 13, 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice sent a “Dear Colleagues” letter to the all public K-12 school districts and colleges explaining the steps they should take in order to protect the civil rights of students based on their personal gender identity.

The letter was spurred by the agency’s objection to a newly-enacted North Carolina state law requiring public school students in that state to use the bathroom facilities matching the gender shown on their birth certificates.

The Obama administration objected to the state law, arguing that Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination at any K-12 public school or college receiving federal funds for education, also applies to cases of personal gender identity.

The Threat of Lost Federal Funding

While the letter did not make or change any laws, it reminded schools that failure to follow its “guidelines” could be interpreted by the courts as a violation of Title IX, thus resulting in them losing all federal funding.

“As a condition of receiving Federal funds, a school agrees that it will not exclude, separate, deny benefits to, or otherwise treat differently on the basis of sex any person in its educational programs or activities unless expressly authorized to do so under Title IX or its implementing regulations,” noted the letter.

Exactly What the Letter Told the Schools

Specifically, the letter stated that whenever a student, parent or guardian notifies the school administration of a student’s personal gender identity that might differ with the gender shown on existing school records, the school should:

  • Documentation: Schools should not require any official documentation of the student’s transition in gender, including a doctor’s note or medical diagnosis. The letter noted that “transgender students often are unable to obtain identification documents that reflect their gender identity,” and that “requiring students to produce such identification documents in order to treat them consistent with their gender identity may violate Title IX.”
  • Prevent Harassment Overall: Schools should work to prevent harassment or discrimination against any student based on their personal gender identity.
  • Restrooms and Locker Rooms: Schools should allow transgender students to use the restroom and locker room facilities that correspond to their chosen gender identity. If the school has single-person restrooms, transgender students should not be forced to use them. However, schools should allow any student desiring privacy to use the single-person facility.
  • Sports: School should allow all students to participate in all sports and extracurricular activities regardless of their chosen gender identity. In other words, transgender boys should be allowed to play football and transgender girls should be allowed be on the cheerleading squad. “Title IX regulations permit a school to operate or sponsor sex-segregated athletics teams when selection for such teams is based upon competitive skill or when the activity involved is a contact sport. A school may not, however, adopt or adhere to requirements that rely on overly broad generalizations or stereotypes about the differences between transgender students and other students of the same sex (i.e., the same gender identity) or others’ discomfort with transgender students,” the letter stated.
  • Names: Require all school personnel and contractors to use the student’s preferred name and pronoun (Mr. Miss, etc.) in all verbal and written communications.
  • Equal Access to Programs: School should ensure that all students have equal access to all educational programs and school-sponsored activities, regardless of objections from other students, parents or members of the local community.
  • Proms and Yearbooks: Schools should allow all students to wear attire typically associated with their chosen gender identity when attending proms, graduation ceremonies, and other school-sponsored activities, and when posing for yearbook photos. This right should apply to all students, whether or not they have declared themselves as transgender.
  • School Records: Schools should recognize that under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the birth names and sex as shown in school records are protected personal information. As such sharing them with anyone not having a “legitimate educational interest” in the information requires the permission of both the student and the parents or guardian.
  • Name Changes: Schools should consider requests by students or their parents or guardian to change school records to properly reflect the student’s chosen gender identity.

"There is no room in our schools for discrimination of any kind, including discrimination against transgender students on the basis of their sex," U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said in the notice. "This guidance gives administrators, teachers, and parents the tools they need to protect transgender students from peer harassment and to identify and address unjust school policies."