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Controversy over transgender students: Why can't schools designate a unisex restroom?

University of Georgia education professor Peter Smagorinsky is a regular contributor to the AJC Get Schooled blog. Today, he responds to another frequent contributor, longtime Georgia educator Jim Arnold, on the controversy over transgender students and school restroom policies.

In a blog posting Friday, Arnold said, "The presidential decree prohibiting public schools from discriminating against those students that self-identify as transgender by forcing them to use the bathroom that corresponds to their biological gender creates a political firestorm around what was essentially a non-issue for schools...To have the president make such a declaration on behalf of the 0.2 or 0.3 percent of the population seems sort of like killing ants with B-2 bombers. You can do it, but it’s probably not the best use of the resources at your disposal."

By Peter Smagorinsky

Over the last few years, I have developed a healthy admiration for Jim Arnold. He was the rare public school administrator who roared back against the power when policymakers imposed too much redundant testing on his schools in Pelham City. He has written many essays on education for Get Schooled, and keeps a compelling blog, the space in which his recent essay on the transgender school restroom controversy ran, under the title “Potty Training.” I think he’s a wise educator and unique public servant. It helps that we usually agree with each other.

But we disagree on the issue of how Georgia schools should respond to the federal demand for school restroom accommodations for transgender students. I hope my response to his essay comes across as respectful disagreement rather than an ideological food fight. I do, however, think that an alternative perspective to his essay is available, based on different assumptions.

Among Jim’s rebuttal’s of the Obama administration’s recent statement on restroom equity is the issue that the transgender population is miniscule, raising the question of whether such a small percentage of kids merits the imposition of a federal policy. Jim says, “To have the president make such a declaration on behalf of the 0.2 or 0.3 percent of the population seems sort of like killing ants with B-2 bombers. You can do it, but it’s probably not the best use of the resources at your disposal.”

I checked, and Jim’s statistics seem accurate. The percentage of transgender people in the total population is quite small, and that figure comprises the whole transgender population. Most people don’t come out as transgender until they are over 30. The percentage of schoolchildren who would urinate in a bathroom not designated for their birth sex is undoubtedly much lower.

But about 1.5% of the U. S. population uses a wheelchair, and the vast majority of them are much older than students in schools. Students with “orthopedic impairments” comprise .9% of students in schools, but this category is far broader than simply those requiring a wheelchair. It is possible, then, that the number of students and teachers requiring wheelchairs is, if not the same, then not far apart. Both are well under 1% of the whole population of students in school.

Making schools wheelchair accessible, however, is required by law. Few would deny those requiring wheelchairs access to schools or toilets adjusted for their needs. But if the issue is solely the low percentage of people who require the accommodation, then we already have a clear example of a much more expensive accommodation in the issue of wheelchair accessibility for about the same number of people.

Jim also refers to transgender students as “suffering from gender confusion.” I see their frame of mind as being quite different. Rather than interpreting transgender people as confused, I find them to be exceptionally determined. I can’t imagine making the decision to go against immense public pressure to declare that your anatomy and your personal makeup are unmatched, and that you want to alter your body to transform yourself so that you feel whole. Following through on that resolution strikes me as being an act of exceptional clarity and will, not confusion.

Finally, I can’t understand why this issue is so contentious and hard to resolve. Why can’t a school take one of its restrooms and designate it as unisex? The only cost involved would be changing the sign on the door. That way parents would not need to be concerned about people masquerading as members of a non-biological sex and assaulting their children behind a restroom stall. If transgender people are feared for violating the arrangement and going into a sex-designated restroom in spite of the alternative, then perhaps they’ve been doing it all along anyhow without anyone noticing.

Jim’s perspective as a long-time school administrator leads him to examine the federal funding that Georgia would lose by defying the Obama Administration’s mandate on restroom equity. I always appreciate his attention to the daily costs of running a school building. Georgia would indeed suffer if the federal funds were denied over its refusal to comply. But does it really need to go to these lengths when seemingly simple, cost-free solutions are available that harm no one?



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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.