Dripping Springs parents clash over transgender bathroom issue

A packed Dripping Springs school board meeting turned into a contentious forum on school administrators’ decision to let a transgender elementary school student use the girls’ bathroom.

Some attendants at the meeting Monday expressed support, and others disagreement with Walnut Springs Elementary School’s decision to let a transgender third-grader who was born a boy and identifies as a girl use the girls’ bathroom. According to parents, the third-grader has been allowed to use the girls’ bathroom since the beginning of the school year.

Some parents criticized school officials and called on the board to reverse the decision.

“There’s no way to quantify the emotional effect on a 6-, 7- or 8-year-old girl who goes into a bathroom and faces a member of the opposite sex,” parent Mike Phillips said.

Other parents and teachers said they supported the school’s decision, saying it was the right one. Amy Reed, who has a daughter in the third grade at Walnut Springs, told the school board meeting that she spoke about this issue with her daughter the night before.

“She told me, ‘I don’t see boys or girls, clothes or bathrooms,’” Reed said. “All I see is my friend, and I want to protect her.”

In an interview with the American-Statesman, Melanie Engel, whose son goes to Walnut Springs Elementary and is friends with the transgender student, said the student’s parents, teachers and counselors have been communicating about the issue for some time.

“For this child it did not happen overnight,” Engel said. “She began by wearing her little sister’s clothing at home. And last year, second grade, had accommodations to use the teacher’s restroom. This process has taken years. … The problem is nobody knows about it because of privacy laws. I saw her today at school for picture day. She looked lovely, and you would not have been able to pick her out of the crowd.”

The district has no specific written policy about accommodating transgender students, Superintendent Bruce Gearing said. It was the Walnut Springs principal’s decision to let the transgender student use the girls’ bathroom.

Gearing said the district plans to respond to the concerns parents expressed at Monday’s meeting. District administrators are still discussing what the response will be.

Other parents at the meeting said they were mainly upset with the school for not informing parents earlier that they would be allowing a transgender student to use girls’ bathrooms at Walnut Springs. Many of them said they learned about the measure through news reports, social media or other parents.

Gearing said parents weren’t notified because school officials are legally barred from sharing information about an individual student’s accommodations.

In the Walnut Springs case, “we determined it was really not possible to do that without violating the confidentiality of that situation,” Gearing said.

It’s unclear whether opponents will push for changes to the way the school district handles transgender students’ requests for bathroom accommodations. The Dripping Springs school board didn’t have a discussion or any action on its meeting agenda about bathroom policies for transgender students, so the board members themselves weren’t allowed to discuss the issue at the public meeting.

Texas Values, a conservative Christian group that had urged its members to speak against this transgender bathroom decision at the Monday school board meeting, hinted that some parents might push for further action.

“We think that the message from concerned parents was heard loud and clear by everyone who attended the meeting last night,” said Nicole Hudgens, a Texas Values policy analyst. “It is our understanding that the parents are looking forward to hearing a response from individual school board members.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has led a 13-state lawsuit against an Obama administration directive handed down in May, which told U.S. public schools that transgender students must be allowed to use bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity. A federal judge sided with Paxton last month and put that directive on hold for now.

There isn’t “clear guidance from the courts” about this issue, said Dale Whitaker, a spokeswoman for the Dripping Springs school district.

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