Transgender students may soon be accommodated in bathroom and locker room facilities in Harford County Public Schools, in accordance with a federal mandate, but some in the community appear to be uneasy, if not downright hostile, about the change.
The accommodations follow an advisory issued Friday by the Justice Department and the Department of Education that schools across the country must accommodate transgender students in those facilities.
Initial attempts this week to reach several local elected officials for comment were met with non-responses; however, one who was willing to talk says he's still opposed, despite the threat of losing federal education funds for non-compliance.
State Sen. Wayne Norman, a Bel Air Republican whose district covers eastern Harford County and parts of western Cecil County, said he opposed legislative efforts to protect transgender rights during the 2014 Maryland General Assembly session, and he is still opposed.
The General Assembly approved Senate Bill 212, which was designed to protect transgender people from employment and housing discrimination, and allow them to use public facilities that match their gender identity, and Gov. Martin O'Malley signed it in May 2014.
Opponents dubbed it the "bathroom bill."
"I was opposed to the bathroom bill, and I remain opposed to it," Norman said Monday.
Harford County Public Schools officials said they are working with state and federal education officials to determine the best way to accommodate transgender students to use the restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity, rather than their biological sex.
An announcement from the school system Friday afternoon drew heated responses on both sides of the issue on social media, including in several reader posts on the Facebook pages maintained by The Aegis that features articles from its website.
Council members speak
Tuesday night, three members of the members of the Harford County Council expressed somewhat conflicted views of the change.
Council Mike Perrone said that federal mandates in themselves are an issue, although in general institutions should aim to provide equality for all citizens as much as possible.
Speaking during the council's legislative session, Perrone said in the case of the bathrooms, there is also the issue of a right to privacy.
"What blows my mind about this whole issue is, the fundamental issue is" whether you care who else is in the bathroom with you, he said.
Councilman Jim McMahan said he only heard about the issue after learning that "boys had invaded the girls' bathrooms" in local schools.
"You can certainly tell what's in the news these days," he said. "Surprising? Not really, considering what is coming out of Washington."
McMahan said today's youth are living in "a confusing world."
Councilman Joe Woods, meanwhile, said after the meeting he did not have any strong reaction to the change, as he does not have any children in the school system, but he also did not see what the big deal is about accommodating transgender students.
"I don't really care who is taking a leak next to me," Woods said, although he added the controversy over the decision might make things worse for transgender students, who just want to be left alone and "be like everyone else."
Several high school students interviewed in person Monday at Harford Mall in Bel Air said they would be able to deal with the change.
"I think it's fine," Kaleigh Dechert, a senior at Bel Air High School, said. "I think it really doesn't impact me."
The Bel Air resident said she thinks accommodations are a good idea, but "whether it gets carried out properly is another question," to ensure students are comfortable.
"I feel like there are some people that would take advantage of that, but I think the people that do handle it properly, that wouldn't bother me," Kaleigh said.
Brittni Corey, a sophomore at Aberdeen High School, said she has seen stories in the news media about transgender students being bullied at schools in other communities.
"I've seen stuff on the news about transgender people that go to school, and they get bullied and they can't use the bathroom," she said. "It bothers me, but there's nobody I know of at my school that's transgender – there could be, but they wouldn't say anything."
She said teachers and administrators at Aberdeen have not yet discussed any changes with students.
"If they did [make accommodations] in the locker rooms or bathrooms, I would be OK with it," Brittni said. "I would be fine."
Zach Billings, of Bel Air North, was visiting the mall with his girlfriend, Sarah Smoot, of Fallston. Both are seniors are Fallston High School.
Zach noted the cultural and legal changes that have happened in the U.S. recently to give lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people more rights, such as a U.S. Supreme Court decision paving the way for same-sex marriage, as well as federal requirements for accommodations for transgender public school students.
"If they're getting their rights, who is to say that they don't get to choose who they are as a person or affiliate with whatever gender or sexuality they want?" Zach said.
He acknowledged that could mean sharing facilities with someone who appears to be of the opposite sex.
"As long as they're living a normal life, if they're not exploiting that they are different, if they're just mixed among the crowd, I don't think I would notice," Zach said. "I don't think it would bother me."
Discomfort for others
Norman, the state senator, said he sympathizes with people who have gender identity issues.
"I don't believe that's a mandate for gentlemen to be using little girls' washrooms," Norman said, "I have a big issue with that."
He noted he has an adult daughter, and many friends with "young girls."
"To think that a middle-aged man could use ladies' bathroom facilities just appalls me," he said.
Norman stressed he does not want to infringe upon anyone's preferences, though, as long as no one gets hurt and children are not involved.
"I think as long as nobody is getting hurt, a person should be able to do whatever the heck they want to do," he said. "When there's a possibility of someone harming a child, that's one of the most important things we have to defend in the legislature, is our children."
The Justice Department advisory states public schools that receive federal funding must allow students to use the locker room and restrooms, as well as try out for athletic teams, that correspond with their gender identity, even if that differs from the gender on their birth certificates.
"When a school provides sex-segregated activities and facilities, transgender students must be allowed to participate in such activities and access such facilities consistent with their gender identity," according to the advisory.
Schools must make the accommodations to be in compliance with the federal Title IX, which prohibits gender-based discrimination – including based on gender identity – in educational institutions that receive federal funding.
"As a school system, we continue to receive training and best practices from the Maryland State Department of Education and are currently awaiting further guidance from MSDE regarding the Office of Civil Rights and President Obama's statement that was issued on Friday, May 13, 2016," HCPS spokesperson Jillian Lader said in an emailed statement Tuesday. "The support of MSDE will assist us in creating policies and procedures that will assure the safety and privacy of all of our students."
Lader said Harford school officials will "continue the support we have provided to the relatively small number of transgender students who are currently enrolled in Harford County Public Schools, as we have done for many years."
"Harford County Public Schools leadership will continue to work with school administrators to provide access to alternative facilities in our buildings, including a private restroom, for any student if requested," Lader said. "We will continue to work with our transgender students and their families to develop a plan to address the student's particular circumstances and needs."
Lader issued the prior statement on behalf of the school system Friday, following President Barack Obama's announcement of the new federal guidelines, indicating that county school officials will work with state and federal officials to implement those guidelines.
"This guidance has been upheld as valid by the United States Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in the case of G.G. v. Gloucester County (Va.) School Board," according to the HCPS statement. "The state of Maryland is subject to the jurisdiction of the 4th Circuit."
The appeals court ruled April 19 in favor of Gavin Grimm, a transgender male student at Gloucester High School in Virginia who wanted to use boys' facilities and claimed segregated facilities for transgender students were a violation of Title IX. The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Virginia sued the Gloucester County School Board on Gavin's behalf, according to the ACLU's website.
Laura Runyeon, a member of the Harford County school board, declined to comment Monday on the measures HCPS is implementing, noting she received additional information from the school system about the new procedures, but she had not yet read it.
Private schools not affected
While the federal guidance only affects public schools, local private schools have also weighed in on the matter.
"We don't intend to have any provisions for transgender students, or certainly restrooms, locker rooms in that regard," Bryan Wilson, principal of Harford Christian School in Dublin, said Monday.
Harford Christian School is a ministry of the Reformation Bible Church.
"God created man and woman distinctly different, and we were born with an identity, and we would embrace the fact that the identity that we were born with is one that we need to embrace as God's plan," Wilson said.
Joseph Schuberth, a spokesperson for The John Carroll School, a private Catholic school in Bel Air, said school officials "do not have any plans to make special accommodations specifically for transgender students, but as a Catholic school community, we will continue to welcome and offer love, support and dignity to all students."
Aegis staff member Bryna Zumer contributed to this report.