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Sarasota County School Board Keeps Status Quo on Transgender Bathroom Issue

Policies vary locally on transgender bathroom access in schools.
Wikimedia Commons
Policies vary locally on transgender bathroom access in schools.

Last month the Obama Administration sent a letter to school districts threatening to pull federal funding if they do not allow transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity.

Tuesday was the fourth time since February that Sarasota County school board members heard public comment on whether the district needs to create a policy stating which restrooms transgender students would be able to use.

The issue is now handled on a case by case basis. The move followed a request by a specific student at Pine View School -- a magnet program serving second through 12th grades.

But after Tuesday's meeting, Sarasota's status quo remains.

Bryan Ellis of the Florida Suncoast chapter of the Answer Coalition, a civil rights organization, says the current policy is not effective.

“It doesn't provide the support for trans students to even feel safe or comfortable reporting harassment so that’s why they haven’t been," he said. "The school board sees that as a sign there’s no problem when in fact they are not recognizing that their policy is discriminatory and that’s what we are trying to change. So right now we're kind of stuck in limbo.”

John Boutchia, a pastor at Calgary Baptist Church in Englewood says the board needs to act-one way or another.

“This has become a national spotlight so I think it is very important that the school board here in Sarasota County make a swift decision and settle the issue,” he said.

The federal guidance does not impose any new legal requirements. But officials say it's meant to clarify expectations of school districts that receive funding from the federal government.

Just weeks after the directive, the administration faced the first major court challenge to its guidance as officials from 11 states filed a lawsuit.

Sarasota County School Board member Bridget Ziegler said she recognizes that people on both sides of the matter are frustrated.

"But I believe that because there are other cases out there that are being challenged that there may be some board members who would prefer to wait and see how that pans out and kind of take direction on that. That's not my particular preference but that's why I believe there has not been any movement forward.”

Ziegler, who called the federal directive, "disappointing," says it would take a majority of the board to agree to even advance a discussion to break down its options. She's said she wants the board to agree to schedule another workshop and to hold more public hearings. "We need to hear directly from our community and find a solution that’s best going to suit every student in Sarasota County."

No timetable was given on when or if the school board will update the policy.

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Cathy Carter is the education reporter for WUSF 89.7 and StateImpact Florida.