Despite reversal on transgender bathrooms, local officials don’t plan change

Posted March 8, 2017

Despite a reversal in federal protections for transgender students, area public school officials aren’t planning to make any changes in policy.

On Feb. 22, the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice released a “Dear Colleague” letter undoing Obama era federal guidelines that stated Title IX protects students who wished to use bathrooms in public schools aligning with their gender identity. “Dear Colleague” letters are sent to public school officials from the department to provide guidance on current issues.

In the new letter, the department, now under the control of newly appointed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, stated previous guidelines did not “contain extensive legal analysis or explain how the position is consistent with the express language of Title IX.” The letter declared all issues related to transgender bathroom usage should be handled by the states and not the federal government.

UW-River Falls recently began adding gender neutral bathrooms to its facilities on campus in an effort to become more accommodating to students who identify as transgender or wish to have more privacy. Last May, the university sought approval from the state to begin renovating bathrooms in Grimm and McMillan halls. In a written statement, UWRF spokesperson Beth Schommer said the university doesn’t plan to change its direction.

“UW-River Falls remains committed to inclusivity, and I am sure we will continue to adhere as much as possible to best practices that are aimed at providing a safe and supportive learning environment for all,” Schommer said.

UWRF’s Gender and Sexuality Coordinator Nathan Elness said the university’s response to gender and sexuality issues is becoming more progressive.

“Everybody is really on the front end. Our students are always more ahead of where we are as an institution so it’s really catching up to where they are and what they believe,” Elness said.

UW-Stout in Menomonie is considered one of the leading UW schools for progressive action on LGBTQ issues. During the last eight years, the university has worked to add gender neutral bathrooms to all campus buildings. Sandi Scott Duex, UW-Stout’s dean of students and Title IX coordinator, said the university has no plans to slow down its efforts.

“It’s one piece of creating a climate that’s really welcoming for all of our students,” Scott Duex said.

Outside of higher education, the reversal also affects primary and secondary schools. In October 2015, the River Falls School Board approved a transgender policy allowing students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that match their chosen gender identity.

“We will continue to keep our policy in place regardless of the changes under the federal government and Trump’s administration,” said Kit Luedtke, principal of River Falls High School and Renaissance Academy. “Our district philosophy is to ensure that all students have the right to a safe and healthy environment to learn and develop into productive citizens of the state of Wisconsin and the United States of America.”

Now that transgender bathroom issues have shifted to state government, state Rep. Jesse Kremer (R-Kewaskum) from Wisconsin’s 59th Assembly District is considering options to revive a bill that would force students in public schools to use the bathrooms they were biologically assigned to. Kremer introduced the bill last summer but was shut down after strong resistance from transgender students.

Elness said he will continue to work with students and the university to lobby for transgender rights within the state. He said the university has to ability to set policies that differ from state laws.

“Maybe the state isn’t as supportive at the moment but our institution can be,” Elness said.

Scott Duex said the bill wouldn’t stop UW-Stout from offering students gender neutral options but it would negatively impact the students.

“It doesn’t help the overall climate issues that particularly any of our trans students and any non-binary students really face on a day to day basis,” Scott Duex said.

UWRF’s Title IX coordinator, Gregg Heinselman, declined to comment on the issue.