Schools shy from transgender policy, eyeing court case

By Jason Hawk -



The U.S. Supreme Court may rule on bathroom accommodations for transgender students, leaving the Amherst school board tip-toeing around the issue.

Ennis Britton Co., the legal firm that advises the school district, sent a letter Monday to Amherst superintendent Steven Sayers, cautioning against any written policy on the issue.

The firm’s lawyers “recognize that schools must continue to act in accordance with law and prior guidance on gender discrimination.”

Attorney Giselle Spencer pointed to U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights guidance saying schools cannot discriminate “based on gender identity or failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity of femininity.” She also noted that federal funding is tied to compliance.

However, the letter warns that on Aug. 3 the High Court temporarily stopped enforcement of a lower federal court order directing a Virginia school system to allow a transgender male to use the boys bathroom at his school.

Which bathrooms and locker rooms transgender students use because a hot button issue in May after a federal communique directing schools to let the students choose.

Sayers said he has since reached out to the Ohio School Boards Association, Buckeye Association of School Administrators, legal counsel, and other Southwestern Conference schools for direction.

“Everybody, at least that we’ve heard from, is doing exactly what we’re doing,” he told the board of education Monday.

Amherst officials are handling the issue on a case-by-case basis, working with each student to find the best solution.

That’s been the case for a long time with zero problems, Sayers told the News-Times earlier in the week.

“We have been handling this for years, very discreetly and professionally,” he said. “Nothing has changed.”

School board member Bob Kamnikar said students who are uncomfortable for any reason have the option of using single-occupant bathrooms. Those accommodations, according to board president Rex Engle, have been available not only to transgender students but also those with injuries or disabilities.

“We do pride ourselves in accommodating any student in whatever they may need to get the best education possible,” Engle said.

Of the calls he has received on the issue, many have been from transgender, gay, and liberal constituents who praised the schools’ accommodations. “Those students feel so welcome or so engaged in being part of the Amherst Schools as opposed to being isolated,” Engle said.

Yet the local board of education fears lawsuits that may come as a result of writing a specific policy on either side of the issue. Its members also shrink from espousing their personal views — as Engle put it, “Our personal opinions don’t matter in this,” he said. “It doesn’t hold sway when we’re working as a board.”

In a July meeting, the school system came under fire from constituents who bristled at the prospect of letting transgender students use the facilities of their preference.

Parent Markus Athineos, for example, called the policy “reckless,” “dangerous,” and “negligent.” He said opponents would not stand still, “while the hearts, minds, and bodies of our children are prostituted at the altar of political correctness, extremism, and negligence.”

He was among the parents who called for a formal policy, saying without one “our children are at risk of being violated and our schools are at risk of litigation.”

No members of the public attended Monday’s meeting to make statements on either side.

Board vice president Ron Yacobozzi called the issue a “sensitive and serious” one that is still up for discussion, especially with the Supreme Court action in view.

“There’s nothing we can do at this point, or even should do at this point, in my opinion,” he said.

Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.


By Jason Hawk