Athens Superintendent Speaks on Transgender Directive

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Though he has yet to receive his official copy of a federal directive regarding transgender students in public schools, Athens City Schools Superintendent Tom Gibbs said the issue is already being handled.

On Friday, the United States Department of Education sent a letter notifying school districts that the Title IX non-discrimination act should be used when it came to transgender students as well. The guidance from the federal government said students who identify as transgender should be allowed to use school facilities, including bathrooms and locker rooms, that match their gender identification.

Other school officials have said they would study the directive and seek legal guidance, but Gibbs said public schools have known the guidance was in place for years.

“This really isn’t a new issue for public schools, there’s been advice coming out of the US Department of Education for going on two years now indicating that…Title IX should be used also to protect the rights of transgender students,” Gibbs said.

The federal directive also ties federal funding for schools to the adherence to Title IX mandates. For Athens City Schools, that amounts to about $800,000 in Title I (the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) funding and more than $1 million in special education funding, according to Gibbs.

“I am a bit disappointed that the federal government’s chosen to put schools front and center, right in the middle of the debate and the argument, but we will respond to that as best we can,” Gibbs said.

Tying federal initiatives to education funding isn’t a new concept, Gibbs said, giving the example of the Individuals with Disabilities Act as another initiative that affected federal funding to schools.

“This is a longstanding…pattern with the federal government that has been hotly debated at the federal level,” Gibbs said.

Athens’ school district has done their own work for transgender students. Those that have talked to the school about changing their names in school records along with using school facilities have done so proactively, according to Gibbs.

“We try to work with the parents and families to come up with a solution that works best for each student,” the superintendent said.

The circumstance is not common in Athens, though. Transgender students who have made their gender identity change known to the school represent less than a handful of the students in the district, according to Gibbs.

“There’s not a large number of students who this impacts directly in regards to students who identify as transgender,” he said.

Still, the fact that the focus has been on bathrooms is only a part of the discussion for schools.

“I know that everyone seems to be focused on the bathroom issue right now, but really this is about protecting the individual rights of students and assuring that every student feels safe and comfortable at school and so, that should be our goal,” Gibbs said.

The district expects to discuss facility plans with the public in the next year, and Gibbs anticipates this issue will be part of the discussion. The health curriculum is also under review to reflect the “changing landscape,” Gibbs said.

He said the input will no doubt include both supporters and dissenters.

“Athens is a very diverse district, we certainly have some very conservative people who live within the bounds of our district,” Gibbs said. “We also have some very liberal people, so this is certainly not an issue that everyone is going to agree on.”

What the school district needs to do, according to Gibbs, is balance priorities of difference backgrounds and differing opinions with the well being of the students.

I think the issue goes beyond funding,” he said. “I think it’s an issue that our country needs to have a conversation about. These conversations are always difficult, people frequently disagree on issues of this nature.”