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Advocates: New Federal Stance on Transgender Rights Muddies the Waters

The U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights has a new view of enforcing transgender students' rights, but many aren't treating it in black-and-white terms.

As my colleague Evie Blad reported at Rules for Engagement, the department has instructed regional directors to focus on incidents where transgender students might have been harrassed and bullied, not on issues concerning access to facilities that match their gender identity.

The memo from acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Candice Jackson, which is dated June 6 and was first reported by the Los Angeles Times on Friday, allows the department's investigators to avoid the dicey issue of facilities access for those students. In February, the Trump administration rescinded Obama-era guidance to schools that asserted transgender students are included under the federal sex-discrimination protections in Title IX. 

"It is the goal and desire of this department that OCR approach each of these cases with great care and individualized attention before reaching a dismissal conclusion," Jackson wrote in the memo.

But the LGBT rights group GLSEN argued that questions about facilities are left unanswered by the department's new approach. "GLSEN asks the Department of Education and OCR officials to confirm whether or not the OCR will investigate reports of transgender students being denied equal access to school restrooms and other school facilities regardless of where the student lives," the group said in a statement. 

Back in March, we spoke with Seth Galanter, a former principal deputy assistant secretary for human rights in Obama's Education Department. Galanter made it clear that he supported the 2016 Obama guidance concerning transgender students and Title IX. But absent that guidance, he spelled out an approach the Trump administration could take that would afford some protection to those students. That approach is basically the one the department seems to have taken.

Earlier this week, we reported how the department planned to shift its approach to civil rights investigations. The department said the shift would make investigations more efficient and cut down on the backlog, but critics argued the new approach would limit civil-rights enforcement.

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