Cramer: Students' rights would be violated if they are forced to use restroom with opposite sex
GRAND FORKS -- The Obama administration's recent letter to districts on school bathroom policy earlier this month created another wrinkle in the nationwide debate over transgender rights, and this week, it brought up sharp differences in how Nort...
GRAND FORKS -- The Obama administration's recent letter to districts on school bathroom policy earlier this month created another wrinkle in the nationwide debate over transgender rights, and this week, it brought up sharp differences in how North Dakota's federal legislators view the issue.
Federal officials issued a memo last week telling all public school districts in the country that, based on which gender they identify with, transgender students should be allowed to choose which bathroom, locker room or other gender-segregated spaces they use.
President Barack Obama has framed the issue as one of fairness for children who are sexual minorities.
But not everyone sees it that way.
"(Many students') rights are violated because, by no choice of their own, they can be forced to use the restroom with someone of the opposite gender," U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said in an interview last week. "We should be helping young people with counseling, with encouragement, not enhancing their confusion, but helping with who they are and not on a given day who they feel like they want to be."
Though it isn't a legal mandate, the order implied school districts that don't comply with the administration's reading of federal law could face legal action or a loss of federal funding. Officials in states across the country, like North Carolina, Kentucky and Texas have rankled at the rule, with some saying they would encourage schools to not yield to Obama's interpretation of the law.
North Dakota's Department of Public Instruction said state education leaders won't tell local districts how to respond to the Obama administration's new directive.
Cramer blasted the Obama administration for executive overreach. He said the heart of the matter is a "choice," as he called it, to use a bathroom that didn't correspond to sex at birth, adding "if we accommodate transgender lifestyle at younger ages, you're not just accommodating it, you're encouraging it."
When asked about the letter and similar state-level matters, Chase Iron Eyes, the Democratic candidate running to unseat Cramer, issued a statement noting his stance against discrimination.
"I'm against discrimination of any form in North Dakota, as well as everywhere else and that certainly includes our schools," Iron Eyes said in a portion of the statement. "Kids need to be respected for who they are, and making this a political hot potato does nothing to help educate or make people more aware of this issue."
Federal vs. local control
U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., sees the matter of federal versus local control.
In an e-mail, Hoeven's communications director, Don Canton, explained the senator "believes all people should be treated with respect" but feels the decision on the issue rests elsewhere.
State Rep. Eliot Glassheim, D-Grand Forks, who is running for Hoeven's seat, said he supports the letter's stand against discrimination. He countered Hoeven's states' rights argument by suggesting the letter does not tell local leaders how to set their policies -- just that they cannot be discriminatory.
"We can't have discrimination anywhere," he said. "(The administration) didn't mandate ... whether you have unisex bathrooms or what you have. That would be up to the individual school district. They just have to be careful to make sure that whatever their policy is it's not discriminatory."
Staff for U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., noted in a statement a correlation between transgender students' suicides and "denied access to bathrooms in schools."
"These decisions impact a small but particularly vulnerable population of children, and the consequences of not being permitted to be themselves can be severely damaging and long-lasting," Heitkamp said. "They, and all students, deserve to be treated with dignity."
It's not clear how much of North Dakota's population identifies as transgender. A 2013 Gallup survey estimated that 1.7 percent of North Dakota's population identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender -- the lowest rate in the survey.
However, advocacy groups and other experts suggested that might be an undercount. It might be harder to be honest about sexuality in a small rural town, they said, and the results might be evidence that the state's political climate might either discourage that honesty or drive LGBT persons away.
However many people are affected, the issue is making waves. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler noted her frustration with what she called "meddling" from federal leaders.
"The school districts have the policy on this," she told the The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's editorial board. "The North Dakota Department of Public Instruction does not do policy, and we don't provide guidance or suggestions to any school district and have never provided guidance or suggestions on policy or administrative rules."
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Dakota takes a different tack than Baesler.
"This guidance is simply providing schools with clarity as to the legal obligations that they already had under Title IX," Jennifer Cook, the group's policy director, said in a statement. "There should now be absolutely no question as to what schools in North Dakota need to do to ensure they are upholding their obligations under federal civil rights law regarding the treatment of transgender students. The bottom line is transgender students have the same rights to dignity and respect as everybody else."