The federal government has informed public school districts that they must allow transgender students access to bathrooms that are consistent with their gender identity.
The U.S. Justice and Education departments sent a guidance letter Friday to school districts explaining the departments' views on the issue and how officials will determine whether school systems are following discrimination laws, specifically Title IX regulations that govern discrimination in schools on the basis of sex.
"Under Title IX, a school must treat students consistent with their gender identity even if their education records or identification documents indicate a different sex," the letter states.
The guidance letter comes as jurisdictions across the United States are confronting controversy over transgender issues. The Justice Department has sued the state of North Carolina over a law that restricts access to bathrooms and other spaces; the Texas lieutenant governor has called for the resignation of the school superintendent in Fort Worth, where a policy protecting transgender rights has been put into place.
Along with the letter, the education and justice departments also issued a document that provides examples of policies and practices that have been developed in support of transgender students.
In a blog post discussing the guidance letter and other material, Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education, and Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant attorney general, say that to provide equal treatment and follow the law, schools must recognize a transgender student's gender identity.
The "documents show that protecting transgender students’ right to be who they are does not harm other students," the blog post says. "Instead, they show that equality for transgender students is not only required by law, but achievable through common-sense approaches that foster safety and a positive learning environment for all students."
The guidance letter says the federal government treats a student’s gender identity as the student’s sex for purposes of Title IX.
"This means that a school must not treat a transgender student differently from the way it treats other students of the same gender identity," the letter says.
"When a student or the student’s parent or guardian, as appropriate, notifies the school administration that the student will assert a gender identity that differs from previous representations or records, the school will begin treating the student consistent with the student’s gender identity."
Regarding bathrooms, the letter states: "A school may provide separate facilities on the basis of sex, but must allow transgender students access to such facilities consistent with their gender identity. A school may not require transgender students to use facilities inconsistent with their gender identity or to use individual-user facilities when other students are not required to do so."