Texas state officials advanced their campaign against transgender students this week, as Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) issued a nonbinding opinion concluding that Fort Worth Independent School District’s transgender-inclusive guidelines violate state law. His primary objection is that schools shouldn’t be helping trans students hide their identities from their parents.
Fort Worth ISD’s policy has been in the state’s crosshairs since it was first introduced earlier this year. Lt. Gov Dan Patrick (R) held a press conference outside a school board meeting to help fan the flames of concerned parents, then formally asked Paxton to review the policy, which led to this week’s opinion. In addition to this local fight, Paxton has also filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a dozen or so states challenging the Obama administration’s guidelines protecting transgender students.
But Paxton’s primary argument against the legality of Fort Worth ISD’s guidelines actually has little to do with the nonsense bathroom security arguments that the state is making in other venues. Instead, he suggests that the policy’s provision protecting transgender student’s privacy from their parents violates Texas state law.
The guidelines state that students have a right to privacy, including regarding their actual or perceived gender identity and expression. “School personnel may only share this information on a need-to-know basis or as the student directs. This includes sharing information with the student’s parent or guardian.” In other words, the school will take the student’s lead in what to reveal to parents — to whom they may not be out.
Paxton contends that the guidelines thus “relegate parents to a subordinate status, receiving information only on a ‘need-to-know basis.’” It inhibits their ability to “actively participate” in their children’s education. He also argues that the policy could put school employees in a position to “encourage some children to withhold information from a parent.”
Texas state law offers two specific provisions about parents’ right to information. Except in cases where child abuse may be involved, “A parent is entitled to full information regarding the school activities of a parent’s child.” Paxton doesn’t seem to argue that Fort Worth ISD’s guidelines violate this, given they also acknowledge that parents can request educational records under FERPA and those records will include any information about the student’s gender identity at school.
The second provision stipulates, “An attempt by any school district employee to encourage or coerce a child to withhold information from the child’s parent is grounds for discipline.” It is this section that informs Paxtons’ entire argument. In fact, he seems to imply that school officials even have a duty to inform parents of a student’s gender identity.
Nathan Smith, Director of Public Policy at GLSEN, told ThinkProgress that could actually significantly endanger a trans student. “Schools should protect the student from being put in a situation where they’re rejected at home or in some cases kicked out,” he warned. A student might only be out about their gender identity at school — specifically because they fear they won’t be accepted by their family.
“The school has a principal responsibility to ensure that the student is safe and affirmed, and part of that means that they aren’t doing anything that could potentially lead to a bad situation at home,” Smith explained. “We think that there is great opportunity for parents to be engaged in their students’ lives where it makes sense and where it’s appropriate. Parental engagement can really be a positive force in the life of a trans student, but we know that’s not always the case.”
GLSEN’s model policy for accommodating transgender students aims to strike this balance. “School may be the only safe space where a student feels comfortable fully expressing their gender,” it reads. “Therefore it is critical that parental/guardian approval is never a prerequisite for respecting a student’s chosen name, appropriate gender, and pronouns.”
It also recommends that a school provide resources to help a student cope with family rejection, such as counseling, peer support through a school gay-straight alliance, and referral to outside resources.
Paxton’s only other argument is that Superintendent Kent Scribner instituted the guidelines without approval from the school board. The guidelines were simply the implementation of gender identity nondiscrimination protections that the board did approve way back in 2012.
The board has not only indicated support for Scribner and the guidelines, but when Patrick helped escalate the controversy, several board members confirmed that Scribner had been discussing the issue with them for months. They were surprised there was even any controversy.
Patrick, however, boasted Tuesday that Paxton’s opinion “is a clear and resounding victory for parents within the Fort Worth ISD who deserve a transparent superintendent and school board that follows the law.” Like Paxton, he seems to believe schools should disclose students’ gender identities to parents, and he is continuing to call for the elimination of the policy and for Scribner’s resignation.