HANCOCK COUNTY — Harold Olin called it one of the most challenging mandates he’s received in his nearly 20 years as a school administrator.
The federal government on Friday directed schools to allow transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms that match their chosen gender, igniting discussion among local educators about best practices for complying.
The guidance issued Friday from leaders at the departments of education and justice states public schools are obligated to treat transgender students in a way that coincides with their gender identity, even if their education records or identity documents indicate a different sex.
Olin, Greenfield-Central Schools superintendent, said he has concerns about the directive, which he hadn’t read but had heard about Friday afternoon; school officials will take time to review it to comply, like they do with all mandates, he added.
School officials want to accommodate all students, but complying with the order could be challenging in some schools, especially those with young learners who might not understand transgender issues, Olin said.
Olin also worries about harassment and bullying among the district’s older students, he said.
Right now, many of the schools in Greenfield-Central have private restrooms for students uncomfortable with using a public restroom, Olin said.
Olin fears the mandate could make a large percentage of students uncomfortable to meet the needs of a few.
“(The directive) puts schools in an awkward position,” he said. “I’ve been in administration for 17 years … this is probably going to be the most challenging directive I’ve ever received.”
The guidance does not impose any new legal requirements; officials say they hope it clarifies the expectations they have for school districts that receive funding from the federal government.
Under the guidance, schools are told they must treat transgender students according to their chosen gender identity as soon as a parent or guardian notifies the district that identity “differs from previous representations or records,” according to a news release from the U.S. Department of Education.
There is no obligation for students who are transgender to present a specific medical diagnosis or identification documents that reflect their gender identity, and equal access must be given to transgender students even in instances when it makes others uncomfortable, according to the directive.
“As is consistently recognized in civil rights cases, the desire to accommodate others’ discomfort cannot justify a policy that singles out and disadvantages a particular class of students,” the guidance states.
Southern Hancock Superintendent Lisa Lantrip said educators in the district are reviewing the documentation sent to officials Friday, and they’ll consider the implications it has for the district and its students.
The district already has a nondiscrimination policy in place that protects LGBT staff and students, Lantrip said.
“Our priority is to protect all students,” she said. “We will continue to operate in a nondiscriminatory fashion toward students and staff.”
Mike Horton, assistant superintendent of Mt. Vernon schools, said educators there had received no official documents about the directive as of Friday afternoon.
The school corporation will likely seek legal counsel on the next steps, he said.
“We take following the law very seriously. We take students’ rights very seriously,” he said.
Leaders of the departments of justice and education say the mandate comes on the heels of educators across the country seeking guidance on how to comply with Title IX, federal legislation that prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs and activities that receive federal funding.
The administration is also releasing a separate 25-page document of questions and answers about best practices, including ways schools can make transgender students comfortable in the classroom and protect the privacy rights of all students in restrooms or locker rooms.
“No student should ever have to go through the experience of feeling unwelcome at school or on a college campus,” said U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. in a press release. “We must ensure that our young people know that whoever they are or wherever they come from, they have the opportunity to get a great education in an environment free from discrimination, harassment and violence.”
Eastern Hancock school officials did not return calls seeking comment.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence issued a statement Friday saying in response to the president’s directive, saying the government has “no business getting involved in issues of this nature.”