New York’s governor, attorney general and top education official vowed Thursday to uphold the rights of transgender students under federal and state laws and policies that protect them from discrimination and harassment.
The pledges from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman and Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia came a day after President Donald Trump’s rollback of the Obama-era directive that instructed public schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms of their chosen gender.
“We in New York will never stop fighting to ensure the LGBTQ community and all Americans are afforded the equal protections guaranteed to them by the United States Constitution,” Cuomo said in a statement.
Cuomo directed the State Education Department to remind New York’s 700-plus public school districts that transgender students are protected under New York’s laws and policies.
Schneiderman and Elia formulated their response earlier Thursday and, in a joint communication to districts, informed local education officials that — irrespective of the federal government’s directive — they are responsible under state and local law to protect transgender students from discrimination and harassment in school and at all school functions.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Justice and Education departments said that public schools no longer needed to abide by the directive issued in May under President Barack Obama. That guidance was based on the Obama administration’s determination that federal sex discrimination law, known as Title IX, applies to gender identity.
Thursday, the New York officials noted that the state’s Dignity for All Students Act, or DASA, which went into effect in 2012, requires school districts to prohibit discrimination and harassment on school property or at a school function, on the basis of a student’s gender identity or expression.
The State Education Department issued guidelines in 2015, based on federal and state law, that say schools must create a safe and supportive environment for transgender students; those guidelines included provisions on students being able to use the bathroom and other school facilities of their choice.
“Transgender youth are valued members of our schools and communities across New York State, yet statistics show that more than half of them will attempt suicide at least once by their 20th birthday,” Elia said Thursday. “So we must do everything in our power to create learning environments that are safe and welcoming for all.”
Schneiderman said the Trump administration’s decision to rescind the guidance promulgated under Obama sends a “dangerous and divisive message and threatens some of our most vulnerable young people. But in New York State, the law remains the law — and school districts have independent duties to protect transgender students from discrimination and harassment.”
Schneiderman and Elia also pointed out to school districts that the rollback does not eliminate the significant body of law — including cases brought under Title IX - that holds that denying a student access to facilities or programming based upon that student’s gender identity could be determined to be sex discrimination under federal law.
Robert Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said the state has strong policy in place to protect transgender students.
Earlier Thursday, Long Island transgender students and their parents joined with the leader of the New York LGBT Network to speak out against the Trump administration’s action.
“All students deserve the dignity and the rights of being free from harassment and discrimination, including use of the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity,” David Kilmnick, the organization’s CEO, said at a news conference in Woodbury.
The group set up a 24-hour hotline that students can call to report harassment or discrimination, he said. The hotline number is 646-535-4528.
Lauren Bocketti, who spoke at the news conference, said her transgender son, Zach Mahmud, 10, is a fifth-grader at Birch Lane Elementary School in the Massapequa school district.
“Fortunately for us being in New York and in our school district, he has been treated very fairly,” Bocketti said. “But my heart breaks for . . . any other person that their rights are in jeopardy. We have to speak out.”
Madeline Bruni, 18, of Mastic Beach, said she has been harassed when she tried to use a women’s restroom in a restaurant. Trump’s latest action “makes me feel 110 percent more vulnerable,” she said.
Kilmnick said his organization works with 112 of Long Island’s 124 public school districts. Generally, he said, schools have followed the state’s guidelines, but there “are some that are behind the times.”
“We are really working hard to make sure they do what they need to do to protect students,” he said.
Michael J. Hynes, superintendent of the Patchogue-Medford school district, said in an email statement Thursday that “transgender students, like ALL students, must feel safe, encouraged and accepted by the school they attend and belong to. Our transgender students at Patchogue-Medford have equal access to any activity or class they may be interested in, as well as utilizing the restroom that they feel most comfortable using.”
With The Associated Press