Local officials were among those at public schools nationwide who received an Obama administration directive Friday saying they must permit transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their chosen gender identity.
The directive was issued amid a court fight between the federal government and North Carolina.
The guidance from leaders at the departments of education and justice is that public schools are obligated to treat transgender students in a way that matches their gender identity, even if their education records or identity documents indicate a different sex.
“There is no room in our schools for discrimination of any kind, including discrimination against transgender students on the basis of their sex,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement accompanying the directive, which was being sent to school districts Friday.
Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield issued a memo to principals Friday afternoon, telling them to “follow this simple and common sense approach.”
Schofield said, “I understand you are getting some questions about gender and bathrooms today. We continue to operate under the same procedures that have served our community for generations:
“The Hall County School District does not have ‘bathroom policies.’ In our district, boys use boys’ rooms and girls use girls’ rooms. We also make single stall bathrooms available to families and/or individuals with accommodation issues.
“I encourage you to continue focusing on the issues that relate to caring for and educating our 28,000 boys and girls,” he said.
When asked about the letter Friday, Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Wanda Creel said she had been busy all day and “I haven’t even read a letter.”
In issuing the guidance, the Obama administration is wading anew into a socially divisive debate it has bluntly cast in terms of civil rights.
The Justice Department Monday sued North Carolina over a bathroom access law that it said violates the rights of transgender people, a measure that Lynch likened to policies of racial segregation and efforts to deny gay couples the right to marry.
The guidance does not impose any new legal requirements. But officials say it’s meant to clarify expectations of school districts that receive funding from the federal government.
Educators have been seeking guidance on how to comply with Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs and activities that receive federal funding, Education Secretary John B. King said in a statement.
Under the guidance, schools are told that 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.”
There is no obligation for a student to present a specific medical diagnosis or identification documents that reflect his or her 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 says.
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.
In a statement, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins criticized the directive, saying, “Today’s announcement is more bullying from the Obama Administration over decisions that should be made at the local level. Schools, parents, and state and local governments should decide the most appropriate way to handle these situations with their students. ... Girls should use girls’ bathrooms, and boys should use boy’s bathrooms — it’s as simple as that.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.