On April 6th, the U.S. Department of Education proposed a rule that would build upon Title IX and apply to federally funded K-12 schools. The proposed rule would prohibit a blanket ban or a “one size fits all” policy that bans transgender students from participating on teams consistent with their gender identity. While prohibiting categorical bans, the policy would provide schools some flexibility when determining eligibility criteria. Specifically, the Department proposed that any adopted criteria must be substantially related to the achievement of an important educational objective and minimize harms to students whose opportunity to participate on a team consistent with their gender identity would be limited or denied. 

In a released Fact Sheet, the Department stated that to comply with the above requirements and to ensure fairness and prevent sports-related injuries, a school must look at the sport, the level of competition, and the grade or education level. The Department further clarified that under these eligibility factors, elementary school students would generally be able to participate in school sports according to their gender identity. However, as competition rises in high school level sports, the Department stated schools may assess the sport, level of competitiveness and the age of student more and may limit participation so long as that limit meets the regulation’s requirements.

This proposed rule came on the same day that the U.S. Supreme Court refused to approve West Virginia’s request to enforce a state law that would ban transgender women and girls from participating in school sports teams consistent with their gender identity. The request, which landed itself on the Court’s emergency docket, came after a transgender student who wanted to participate on the girls track team challenged the state law. After a temporary order from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals which precluded the law from being enforced while the case was being considered, West Virginia’s Attorney General sought emergency relief from the Supreme Court, but the Court refused to grant the relief.

What does this mean for your district? There is still a lot to be decided on this topic, both from a regulatory standpoint as well as with case law. The U.S. DOE proposed changes will be published to the Federal Register, where it will be open for 30 days of public comment. Following the 30 days the rule may be altered or published depending on comments received. As written, the regulations will require deliberation before restrictions or bans are put in place, and will make restrictions or bans in less competitive activities (e.g. younger students, junior varsity) more difficult to support. This level of local control will ensure that this sometimes divisive topic remains something districts will continue to have to work through. As for the Supreme Court Decision, the general trend in sports-related cases still points toward discouraging bans on transgender athletic participation. Decisions like this case might present a legal barrier for Ohio’s most recent legislative efforts to address transgender athletic participation. Stay tuned for future updates.