New guidance from the U.S. Education and Justice Departments directs public schools to allow transgender students access to bathrooms that match their gender identity, even though those identities would differ from the gender stated on the students' birth certificates.
"I've never felt fully comfortable using the men's room here," said Avi Isaacs-Corcoran, 16, a Montpelier High School sophomore who is transgender.
Isaacs-Corcoran, who identifies as a young man, said he was thrilled to hear about the new guidance that came in a letter dated Friday that begins "Dear Colleague."
"This is a step in the right direction, definitely," Isaacs-Corcoran told necn. "I will feel more comfortable using the bathroom that corresponds with my identity than I would before."
The guidance from the federal departments does not impose new legal requirements, but officials said it aimed to clarify expectations of school departments that receive funding from the federal government.
"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," said U.S. Education Secretary John King.
A bathroom debate came up in Chester, Vermont this week when some students at Green Mountain Union High School staged a walk-out to back a transgender teen's request to use the men's room.
School administrators eventually agreed to allow it.
However, some parents voiced concern at a meeting Thursday night that the move could unintentionally give cover to men wanting to enter women's restrooms or locker rooms.
"That's going to potentially cause some safety issues for young ladies in this school," cautioned a mother who identified herself as having a daughter at GMUHS. "I don't want my daughter feeling afraid to use the bathroom. That's not fair to her."
Dana Kaplan, an educator at Outright Vermont, a non-profit that advocates for queer youth, dismissed concerns over bathroom safety because of the inclusiveness measures.
"We don't want to cater to people's discomfort, we want to cater to people's civil rights," Kaplan said. "And that's what this move is doing."
"We want to make sure every child, regardless of gender identity, really feels safe and supported at school," Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe told necn in an interview at the Vermont Agency of Education offices in Barre. "These are our children. We have to take care of them."
The Obama Administration's guidance about non-discrimination comes amid a contentious dispute between the state of North Carolina and the federal government. The governor of North Carolina, Republican Pat McCrory, has said the Justice Department is "overreaching" with its positions on bathroom access.
Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vermont, released the following statement regarding the Obama Administration's new guidance to public schools:
"I want to thank President Obama for taking this step as schools around the country and in Vermont work to protect the civil rights of transgender students. No student should ever feel discriminated against while at school for any reason, not because of their race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity. This federal guidance clarifies federal law and is consistent with Vermont's non-discrimination law, which explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity in all public accommodations. As other states take steps that open the door to discrimination, I am proud to live in a state like Vermont that has such a long, proud history of protecting the civil rights of all who live here."