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Despite federal reversal, Title IX questions, Twin Ports educators work to create safe environments

Duluth Edison's North Star Academy offers well-marked gender-neutral bathrooms for students. Bob King /

In the past year, a handful of bathrooms at Duluth Edison's North Star Academy have been labeled as "gender neutral."

"It was just an underlying philosophy that caused us to make the change," as staff became more aware of student needs, said Bonnie Jorgenson, head of Duluth Edison schools. "The goal is for all students to feel safe and accepted."

Duluth Edison, like many schools in the region, is undeterred by the Trump administration's rescinding of guidance in February surrounding transgender students. President Barack Obama had in 2016 guided schools to allow transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms that matched their gender identity.

But the U.S. departments of justice and education said last week that decision is best left to states and schools. The announcement led to strong rebukes from Gov. Mark Dayton, Minnesota education commissioner Brenda Cassellius and the state teachers union.

Calling it a human rights issue and not a states' rights issue, Dayton cited the state education department's 2016 student survey that showed more than half of transgender, gay and lesbian students in Minnesota who were surveyed have attempted suicide.

"These are vulnerable people with very challenging life circumstances," he said. "They deserve our compassion and our support, not our attacks and demonization."

Some Republican state lawmakers back legislation requiring students to use bathrooms that match their birth gender.

The statement of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos on the issue said that schools, communities and families can find solutions "that protect all students."

'Nothing is changing'

Several gender-neutral bathrooms are placed throughout the University of Minnesota Duluth, and any new renovations must include plans for them, said Roze Brooks, sexuality and gender equity initiatives programs coordinator. An employee locker room is being changed to become gender inclusive.

Brooks has noticed misunderstanding on what it means for the guidance to be retracted.

"The only statement it really made was that the (Trump) administration is not interested in maintaining a progressive push on how to interpret Title IX," said Brooks, who uses the pronouns "they" and "them."

Title IX is the law that protects against discrimination based on sex. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments this month on whether the Gloucester County School Board in the state of Virginia can block Gavin Grimm, a transgender high school student, from using the boys' bathroom.

A key part of that case is whether Title IX covers transgender students. It's unclear yet whether the Trump action will affect consideration of the case.

"As we've evolved into how we understand sex and gender, including gender identity in that interpretation, the language of Title IX and its importance hasn't gone anywhere," Brooks said. "We should still be, or on the track of, figuring out how to codify some of that institutionally, especially with not having the backing of that now federally."

They said the Grimm case, if decided in Grimm's favor, would allow for those opportunities.

Many area school districts said they worked with students and their families on "an individual basis" to support their needs, and followed state guidance. In the Duluth school district, there is at least one private, gender-neutral bathroom at each school. District climate coordinator Ron Lake said employees are being trained to also use names and pronouns preferred by transgender students.

In the new Hermantown High School, there is a family bathroom for use by anyone. In the Proctor school district, there are gender-neutral bathrooms at each school. Harbor City International School has a gender-neutral bathroom, and the University of Wisconsin-Superior has several.

"From an institutional standpoint, nothing is changing," said Jerel Benton, director of equity, diversity and inclusion for UWS. "From a diversity, equity and inclusion standpoint, I can see how the withdrawal and leaving these decisions up to states could leave individuals vulnerable. We will monitor that specifically in Wisconsin."

Minnesota's Virginia school district also awaits the ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court. It, along with federal authorities, was sued in September by Privacy Matters, a group that includes several female students alleging district policy violates student privacy and constitutional rights by allowing a transgender student to use the girls' restrooms and locker rooms at its high school. It also alleges that the policy violates Title IX.

A federal judge suspended the lawsuit in December at the request of both parties, as the court awaits a ruling on the Grimm case. Noel Schmidt, superintendent of the Virginia (Minn.) school district, told the News Tribune recently that the district will adhere to any Supreme Court ruling.