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Critics Applaud, Supporters Decry New Fort Worth ISD Transgender Guidelines

Transgender advocates gathered at a Fort Worth school board meeting to show support for transgender students.

After months of uproar over the guidelines for transgender students in Fort Worth school, the district released an updated version yesterday. Many opponents of the original anti-bullying effort applauded the new version, but some transgender advocates say the changes strip out many of the strongest elements in the original.

Critics of the original transgender guidelines were vocal, especially about bathrooms. Opponents argued that the guidelines would have let transgender kids use the bathroom of their choice. Superintendent Kent Scribner says that was never true.

“It was more than a misunderstanding it was fallacy,” Scribner said. “And it was unfortunate that this issue of protecting students from being bullied became such a political football.”

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was the loudest critic. He charged into Fort Worth to call for the superintendent’s resignation, and panned the guidelines as social engineering. Back in May he told KERA the whole process felt undemocratic.

“There was no hearing, there was no school board vote,” Patrick said. “So when a dictator, who parades himself as a superintendent, who issues an executive order in secret, to bypass local control, then I have to step in.”

On Wednesday, Patrick called the new guidelines a victory for parents’ rights and student safety. In Scribner’s first interviews since the controversy blew up, he said the guidelines are product of a 2011 school board vote that added gender identity and expression to the district’s nondiscrimination policy.

“My job was to implement those policies with administrative regulations and guidelines. That’s what we did here,” Scribner said. “We’ve passed guidelines on lice, we’ve passed guidelines on field trips, and this is another guideline. And I had no intention of engaging in a political debate, this is about protecting students so they can learn.”

After hours of school board meetings and community forums, the district has addressed one key concern from its critics. Under the original guidelines, transgender kids who asked for accommodations didn’t have to worry about school officials outing them to their parents. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said that violated state law.

Credit Christopher Connelly/KERA
Kent Scribner is the superintendent of the Fort Worth school district

While Scribner insists the original guidelines were legal, the new version builds in more parental involvement. Now, when a transgender student needs accommodation, school officials are directed to sit down with parents and come up with an individualized plan.

“This version emphasizes the communication with the parents, however requires us to verify their safety consistent with Texas education code,” Scribner said.

So far, Scribner says parents have been at the forefront of helping schools meet their transgender kids’ needs. But Nell Gaither, who heads the Trans Pride Initiative, worries about the transgender kids who don’t have supportive parents. She says many don’t.  

“What the old guidelines did was give a mechanism for students to be affirmed and be supported for those students who didn’t have parental support,” Gaither says. “That’s what was important in those old guidelines. Now you’ve just said that those students who don’t have supportive parents are disposable, they don’t need to be supported.”

Gaither says the original guidelines had specific language to help teachers, administrators and counselors support transgender students and curtail bullying. They also offered guidance for adapting language and gender markers, protecting the privacy of student records and adjusting to a student’s preferred pronouns. That’s all missing in the new version.

“When you have those guidelines that clearly outline what discrimination is and steps that should be taken to affirm a person’s identity and to eliminate discrimination, that’s much stronger than just saying we don’t discriminate,” she says. “That’s why that language is necessary in guidelines.”

As for the question of bathrooms, Gaither wanted to see language to allow students to use the bathroom that fits their gender identity, regardless of their sex assigned at birth.

When the Obama administration sent its own transgender student guidelines to schools in May, it said to do otherwise would violate federal law. Texas is now suing the administration to block those federal guidelines from being implemented.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.