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Transgender bathrooms are a local issue, school superintendent says

FARGO -- The issue of whether transgender students should be allowed to use the bathrooms of their choice should be decided at the local level, not by the federal government, the state's Superintendent of Public Instruction said Wednesday.

North Dakota Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler holds a press conference Wednesday, May 18, 2016, at Fargo South High School.Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
North Dakota Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler holds a press conference Wednesday, May 18, 2016, at Fargo South High School. (Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor)

FARGO -- The issue of whether transgender students should be allowed to use the bathrooms of their choice should be decided at the local level, not by the federal government, the state's Superintendent of Public Instruction said Wednesday.

"As a state superintendent, I am very frustrated by the meddling that occurs from Washington, D.C., with a solution that they deem is a solution for all," Kirsten Baesler said during a news conference at Fargo South High School.

"This is a local issue, that is and has been dealt with very well in many of our communities across the nation and it is an issue that should be discussed, and the solution should be arrived at, by our locally elected school board members, with their parents and their communities in which they live," Baesler said. "Each community is going to be different. A solution in Fargo is going to be different from a solution in Glen Ullin or Wolford. That's why it's so very important that it remain a local issue."

The Obama administration told U.S. public schools last Friday that transgender students must be allowed to use the bathroom of their choice, either that of the gender they were born, or the gender they identify with.

The U.S. Education and Justice Departments, in a letter, told school districts nationwide that while the guidance carries no legal weight, they must not discriminate against students, including based on their gender identity, Reuters reported.

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The guidance contained an implicit threat that school districts defying the Obama administration's interpretation of the law could face lawsuits or be deprived of federal aid, Reuters reported.

The White House defended its actions, saying the guidance should not be viewed as a threat but instead as a set of "specific, tangible, real-world advice and suggestions" that many schools had sought and will welcome, the report said.

Baesler said the state Department of Public Instruction will not direct school districts to either comply or not comply with the policy.

"The school districts have the policy on this," she said. "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."

Baesler said school districts consult with attorneys and can get guidance from the North Dakota School Boards Association.

She also said her department has no control over the federal funds that flow to school districts, so she would not be making a decision on whether to forego federal funds in any dispute.

She said if there is a need to clarify the issue of transgender, "that needs to come through our elected senators and congressmen in Washington, not through an agency."

Baesler said the administration's letter "was over the top. It was a solution that took into consideration nothing.

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"There is a solution there. There is a solution for every issue. But I think that solution is best debated and resulted from conversations" from local leaders and local communities or even at the state, she said.

The federal decision has upset Republicans and raises the likelihood of fights over federal funding and legal authority, Reuters reports.

The pushback against the administration's non-binding guidance to schools is the latest battleground in the issue of rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said the guidance "must be challenged."

In North Carolina, Governor Pat McCrory labeled the move a "massive executive branch overreach" and called on federal courts and the U.S. Congress to intercede, while Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson said it was "offensive, intrusive and totally lacking in common sense."

In Mississippi, Education Superintendent Carey Write said in a statement that her department would "follow the lead of state leadership and take no action at this time" to follow the federal guidance.

The directive came as the Justice Department and North Carolina are battling in federal court over a North Carolina state law approved in March that prohibits people from using public restrooms not corresponding to their gender assigned at birth, while other states weigh similar measures.

North Carolina's law was the first to ban people from restrooms in public buildings and schools not matching the sex on their birth certificate, Reuters reports.

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