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Group sues Virginia school district over restroom policy

A sculpture outside of the Virginia High School/Roosevelt Elementary School complex. A group of families is suing the Virginia school district and federal authorities over the district's policy allowing students to use school restroom and locker room facilities that correspond with their gender identity. (file photo / News Tribune)

A group of families is suing the Virginia school district and federal authorities over the district's policy allowing students to use school restroom and locker room facilities that correspond with their gender identity.

The families — which include five girls who attend Virginia High School, and which have formed a group called Privacy Matters — allege in the lawsuit filed in federal court that the Virginia school district's policy violates student privacy and constitutional rights by allowing a transgender student to use the girls' restrooms and locker rooms at Virginia High School. They additionally allege that the policy violates Title IX by excluding female students from educational programs.

"What these girls are asking for is something that for all of American history has been the common-sense presumption, that you have facilities for girls, facilities for boys and any student that is uncomfortable with that — including the transgender student at the heart of this case, (who) they're not uncompassionate to — they would think the best thing would be for this student to have the option to use the ... restroom of (the student's) biological sex or to make one of the single-stall restrooms available for (the student) to use," said Matt Sharp, an attorney with the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom, a religious legal advocacy nonprofit group.

The lawsuit, which was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court by attorneys from Alliance Defending Freedom, also alleges that federal agencies unlawfully interpreted Title IX to refer to a student's gender identity instead of biological gender of male or female. In addition to the Virginia school district, the lawsuit was filed against the U.S. Department of Education, Education Secretary John King, the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

The lawsuit seeks to have the district's policy and the federal guidance declared unlawful, and a permanent injunction issued against both. It also seeks "an award of nominal damages in the amount of one dollar, and compensatory damages" for each plaintiff, along with legal fees.

"No student should be forced to use private facilities at school, like locker rooms and restrooms, with students of the opposite sex. No government agency should hold hostage important education funding to advance an unlawful agenda," the lawsuit states.

Virginia Superintendent Noel Schmidt declined to comment Thursday, and the school district's attorney, John Colosimo, couldn't be reached for comment.

Sharp told the News Tribune that the lawsuit is being filed against the Virginia school district because of the girls' experiences when the district changed its policy in February to allow students to use facilities based on their gender identity. When concerns were brought to school administration, parents found "an unsympathetic school and a very aggressive federal government," and instead turned to the legal system, he said.

Sharp said the girls involved in the lawsuit hope their privacy will be protected and that they can return to using the school restrooms and locker rooms without what he said is "fear that a boy is going to be walking in at any given moment."

They are also hoping to push back against the federal government, which Sharp said "needs to be told that this is not a matter for the federal government to get involved in. This is something that local schools should be deciding and deciding what's in the best interest of their students."

The Obama administration in May directed schools to allow transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity.

"No student should ever have to go through the experience of feeling unwelcome at school or on a college campus," King, the education secretary, said in a statement issued in May. "This guidance further clarifies what we've said repeatedly — that gender identity is protected under Title IX. Educators want to do the right thing for students, and many have reached out to us for guidance on how to follow the law. We must ensure that our young people know that whoever they are or wherever they come from, they have the opportunity to get a great education in an environment free from discrimination, harassment and violence."

Nearly two dozen states, including Wisconsin, are suing the Obama administration to stop the enforcement of the directive. In Minnesota, legislation introduced this year that would have prohibited schools and businesses from allowing people access to restrooms and facilities that don't correspond to their biological gender failed to receive a vote.

The lawsuit alleges that the federal directive "mandates a school policy that creates a sexually harassing hostile environment and violates privacy."

The lawsuit focuses on an unnamed transgender student at Virginia High School, referred to in the lawsuit as "Student X." The student, who the plaintiffs say identifies as female, used "private accommodations" for a restroom beginning in 2014, while requesting to use the girls' facilities, and has participated on girls' sports teams at the high school, according to the lawsuit.

The Virginia school district didn't notify families in the school district about the policy change, the lawsuit claims.

The student began using the girls' locker rooms, and the five girls from the families who filed the lawsuit claim that they felt uncomfortable changing in the locker room. A coach told the girls that they could use the main girls' locker room near the high school gym or a locker room in the elementary school's basement, according to the lawsuit — but the girls missed class time and sports practice time due to the need to find an alternative locker room or restroom, the lawsuit claims.

The girls have "sincere religious or moral beliefs that they must practice modesty" and have experienced anxiety, stress, humiliation, embarrassment, intimidation, fear, apprehension and distress because of the transgender student's presence in the locker room, according to the lawsuit.

Parents of the girls claim in the lawsuit that their concerns weren't adequately addressed by the administration. Instead, the lawsuit states, the school district maintained the policy and held a school assembly and meeting for parents that promoted the policy and focused on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Two of the girls didn't return to Virginia High School this fall, but one would return if the current policy was changed, and three of the girls continue to attend the high school, according to the lawsuit.

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