Pine-Richland sued over bathroom policy for transgender students
October 7, 2016 12:19 AM
Juliet Evancho, left, and Elissa Ridenour, shown at a news conference Thursday at the Pittsburgh Marriott North in Cranberry, are both seniors at Pine-Richland High School.
Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, an attorney with Lambda Legal, takes questions from the media during a news conference this morning announcing the organization's filing of a federal discrimination lawsuit on behalf of three seniors against the Pine-Richland School District.
Mark Ralston/ AFP/Getty Images
By Michael A. Fuoco / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pine-Richland acquired the dubious distinction Thursday of being the first school district in Pennsylvania to be sued for discriminating against transgender students.
Three transgender students filed a federal discrimination lawsuit for the district’s implementation of a “sex-specific” policy requiring students to use restrooms that match the sex they were assigned at birth. As an alternative, transgender students also can use a unisex bathroom or the private bathroom in the nurse’s office.
The three students who sued are high school seniors — transgender women Juliet Evancho and Elissa Ridenour, both 18, and a transgender male, 17, who was identified in the lawsuit simply as “A.S.” because he is a minor. Ms. Evancho is the older sister of Jackie Evancho, who achieved national fame in 2010 as the runner-up on the NBC-TV show “America’s Got Talent.”
The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh by Lambda Legal, a national LGBT advocacy organization, and the law firm Kline and Specter. The suit seeks preliminary and permanent injunctions against the policy, a declaratory judgment and damages. The suit alleges the district’s actions violate Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“The three brave students we represent are simply looking for equal educational opportunities and for the district to return to a practice that served everyone well,” attorney Omar Gonzalez-Pagan of Lambda Legal said at a news conference. “They want to be able to graduate from Pine-Richland knowing the school recognized and respected who they are.
“Forcing them to use restrooms that do match their identity erases students’ gender identity, endangers the health and safety of transgender students and isolates them from the entire student body and at the same time violates their privacy.”
Pine-Richland spokeswoman Rachel Hathhorn said the district’s policy is to not comment on litigation.
The U.S. Departments of Education and Justice issued joint guidelines in May regarding schools’ responsibilities to protect transgender students from discrimination. Under Title IX, all schools receiving federal funding are prohibited from discrimination on the basis of sex and, the guidance said, a student’s gender identity will be treated as the student’s sex for purposes of enforcement.
Schools that do not conform to the guidance risk the loss of federal education funds. Pine-Richland this year received $1.4 million in federal funds for education but it receives additional federal funds funneled through the state.
“All schools in Pennsylvania that receive federal funding are expected to comply with the requirements as outlined by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice,” said Casey Smith, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
“The Wolf administration is committed to creating a culture of inclusiveness across the commonwealth. The governor will continue to work with the General Assembly to pass comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation that protects all Pennsylvanians.”
Steve Robinson, spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said school boards were cautioned that “if they were to come up with policies that go against the federal guidance that they could be opening themselves for lawsuits.”
He noted, however, that “there are still many legal cases pending on this issue nationwide. Until the courts provide us with a definitive answer that is binding in Pennsylvania, it would be premature for PSBA to draft a policy.”
Texas and 12 other states have challenged the directive as unconstitutional. On the other hand, U.S. District Courts in Wisconsin and Ohio issued preliminary injunctions last month barring school districts from discriminating against transgender students regarding restroom use.
The Pine-Richland’s board resolution passed, 5-4. Those voting in favor were board members Greg DiTullio, Therese Dawson, Holly Johnston, Steven Stegman and Virginia Goebel. Voting against were Jeffrey Banyas, Dennis Sundo, Marc Casciani and Peter Lyons.
Speaking only for himself, Mr. Lyons issued a statement in which he said it is “unfortunate that five members of our board chose to change a practice of the district that had been in place without controversy for some years. ... Unfortunately, the decision of those board members has now also embroiled the district in litigation that is likely to succeed, places our federal funding at risk, and will become a costly and unnecessary distraction from our mission to focus on student learning.”
Harper Jean Tobin, policy director for the National Center for Transgender Equality in Washington, D.C., said Pine-Richland’s action runs contrary to what is happening in much of the country.
“As an issue, it has been politicized by people who have spread unfounded fears about what it means to treat transgender students with dignity and respect,” she said. “But overall the trend is that schools are increasingly doing the right things. Tens of millions of students go to schools that have policies that support treating transgender students equally.”
Part of the problem, she said, is that many people don’t know anyone who is transgender “but once they become more familiar, they will see there is nothing to be afraid of.”
She said “students are more likely to know peers who are transgender and it’s not a big deal. I think you find that it tends to be more the parents than the students who are objecting.”
Michael A. Fuoco: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1968.Twitter: @michaelafuoco