Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination against students on the basis of sex for schools that receive federal funding. More recently, the definition of “sex” discrimination was expanded by federal regulatory agencies. In April 2014, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) indicated that Title IX’s sex discrimination prohibition extends to discrimination “based on gender identity or failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity.” In this guidance, OCR informed school districts that discrimination against students who identify as being transgender, whether in the curricular setting or in extracurricular activities, is prohibited.
This guidance was later reinforced when the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice issued joint guidance in May 2016 stating that both federal agencies will treat a student’s gender identity as the student’s sex for purposes of enforcing Title IX.
Therefore, according to the Education and Justice Departments’ interpretation and application of Title IX, school districts need to provide accommodations for transgender students. Ennis Britton has advised that decisions regarding transgender students be made on a case-by-case basis and in a team environment, wherein the parents, student, and administration may discuss the transition process for that student and the appropriate accommodations.
However, on August 3, 2016, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) issued an order that has caused a number of school districts to question their compliance with the Education and Justice Departments’ previous guidance. The SCOTUS order has temporarily stopped the enforcement of a lower federal court order that directed a school district in Virginia to permit a transgender male to use the boys’ bathroom at his school. Gloucester County Sch. Bd v. G.G., 579 U.S. ___ (2016).
The SCOTUS order did not reverse or overrule the guidance, interpretation, or application of Title IX that is being promulgated and enforced by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice. Rather, the SCOTUS order maintained the status quo for that student and that Virginia school while the case plays out in the lower courts.
Caution should be exercised in reading too much into this SCOTUS order for a number of reasons. First, the deciding vote of Justice Breyer was a “courtesy.” His vote should not be preliminarily construed to be in alignment with four other justices as it relates to accommodations of transgender students in schools. Second, this order does not put a hold on the guidance set forth by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice. The order applies to the one student involved, G.G., and to the Virginia school seeking to deny the student accommodations within its buildings. Finally, the guidance from the Education and Justice Departments still exists and can be expected to be enforced.
School districts should consult legal counsel in determining how best to maneuver the legal, social, and political landscapes when considering if and how to accommodate transgender students within their schools. Special consideration should be given to the fact that without a stay on the guidance or a statement otherwise from OCR, OCR will continue to enforce its interpretation of Title IX, which will include seeking to halt federal, Title IX funds for non-compliant school districts.