A West Virginia high school is under scrutiny after an assistant principal told a trans boy last month that he could not use the boys bathroom. The assistant principal was suspended with pay on Tuesday for the remainder of the semester, or four days.
The West Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which sent a letter to the school district about the incident last month, said the brief suspension was “not sufficient.”
The incident is the latest in a string of stories about trans students experiencing transphobic harassment and being denied access to facilities in accordance with their gender. Although some federal courts have sided with trans students on issues like bathroom access and many school districts have trans-inclusive policies, administrators, teachers, and other staff have still failed to treat trans students with respect. The Education Department also recently changed its position on the treatment of trans students under Title IX under the Trump administration.
In the West Virginia incident, the alleged harassment occurred soon after Thanksgiving when Michael, a 15-year-old student at Liberty High School, went to the restroom. After Michael exited the stall, he said he saw Assistant Principal Lee Livengood placing himself in the way of the bathroom exit and that Livengood raised his voice to ask why he was in the bathroom.
Michael told the Huffington Post that Livengood shouted at him, “If you can’t use this urinal, then you shouldn’t be in here.” He continued, “What if a student said you were checking them out in here?” Livengood also allegedly said, “I wasn’t trying to be rude or anything. I’m not going to lie, you freak me out.”
At the end of the assistant principal’s remarks, Michael was crying. Students who heard the assistant principal down the hall told a parent chaperone, who then confronted Livengood.
Although Livengood was suspended this week, the boy’s mistreatment goes beyond one individual, according to the ACLU. The ACLU claims that administrators at the school will not let Michael use the boys bathroom, will not call him by his name, and have instead used his dead name, or the name he used before he transitioned, in school announcements.
The head of the Harrison County School District, Mark A. Manchin, responded, “Clearly, the way we’ve handled this is inappropriate … Perhaps we need to do a better job about how we handle these situations. It’s a relatively new issue over the past several years that we’ve become more aware of and sensitive of.”
The assistant principal, Livengood, will stay at the school as an investigation into the incident moves forward. The ACLU has asked that the school staff receive training on policies affecting trans students and on how to better serve trans students at the school.
Livengood’s alleged actions, the details of which Manchin said the school is still trying to corroborate, may have violated Michael’s rights under the Harrison County School District’s sexual harassment policy and the state’s anti-bullying statute, Manchin told the Post. However, while Livengood has admitted to confronting the boy in the bathroom, Manchin hasn’t fully embraced the student’s telling of events and believes parts of the story have been dramatized. Livengood has denied some of the remarks Michael said he made.
The story is also a reminder of the Trump administration’s assaults on trans student rights. One of the administration’s first major LGBTQ-specific policy decisions was to rescind an Obama-era Dear Colleague letter, which confirmed that Title IX protections on the basis of sex include transgender students. The letter recommended that districts let trans students use bathrooms and other facilities and be included in activities, such as sports teams, in accordance with their gender.
Gillian Branstetter, spokesperson for the National Center for Transgender Equality, told ThinkProgress that the Trump administration’s decision to rescind 2016 guidance on transgender student rights “abandons transgender students and ignores the very real harassment and mistreatment they face from their peers and the adults in their lives.”
She added, “That said, it should be obvious to any adult it’s inappropriate to harass a child a bathroom.”
In February, the Education Department said it would not investigate complaints from trans students who have been denied access to bathrooms that correspond with their gender. The agency told BuzzFeed at the time that the department’s position under the Trump administration is that trans students are not included in Title IX. Experts on civil rights law have said that the department’s position is inconsistent with recent federal court rulings on the issue.
Youth programs manager at Gay Lesbian Students Education Network (GLSEN), a.t. Furuya, said in response to the news, “No student should ever have to suffer the humiliation and indignity that Michael experienced at school. Schools have an obligation to train teachers, counselors, and administrators, to create safe and welcoming environments where all students can thrive.”
“No student should ever have to suffer the humiliation and indignity that Michael experienced at school.”
Furuya referred to the most recent GLSEN National School Climate Survey, which shows an upward trend from 2013 to 2017 in the frequency of school staff making negative remarks about gender expression, as reason to remain vigilant of how trans students are treated in their schools. Seventy-one percent of students reported hearing negative remarks about gender expression from teachers or other school staff.
Since the rescission of the Dear Colleague letter, it is unclear if more school districts are telling trans students not to use facilities or participate in activities in accordance with their gender. But despite the fact that some school districts have inclusive policies, there have been recent reports of school districts and individual teachers and staff failing to enforce Title IX in an inclusive way.
Michael’s story is painfully similar to trans students’ stories across the country. A few months ago, a trans girl was not allowed to use either the boys or girls locker room during a Virginia middle school’s lockdown drill. Teachers reportedly debated which locker room they should place her in, ultimately telling her to sit in the bleachers, and then in a hallway, by herself.
This month, a Virginia high school teacher was terminated by his district after he refused to refer to a trans student by the correct pronouns. An orchestra teacher in Indiana resigned toward the end of the 2017-2018 school year after he was informed that he would have to comply with the school’s policy of referring to trans students with the proper names and pronouns. Queer teachers have also said that they have struggled with getting administrators on board when it comes to making their schools more inclusive to LGBTQ students.