State: Transgender bathroom rights in schools remain protected

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State officials have confirmed that transgender students in New York public schools are still allowed to choose whichever bathroom matches their gender identity, despite President Donald Trump’s decision to rescind a federal law mandating that schools grant them that right.

State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and state education department commissioner MaryEllen Elia issued a joint press release Thursday announcing that transgender student bathroom rights remain protected under state law.

“The Trump administration’s decision to rescind this guidance sends a dangerous and divisive message and threatens some of our most vulnerable young people,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “But, in New York State, the law remains the law and school districts have independent duties to protect transgender students from discrimination and harassment when they go to school. My office will use all the existing tools of federal, state and local law to ensure that transgender kids are safe in their schools and are provided equal access to all programming and facilities consistent with their gender identity.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a press release Thursday that the change in federal policy “does not alter the protections we afford to transgender students.”

“As the federal government seeks to roll back the progress we have achieved toward equality, we in New York will never stop fighting to ensure the LGBTQ community and all Americans are afforded the equal protections guaranteed to them by the United States Constitution,” he said.

Former President Barack Obama announced in May that federal law requires public schools to allow transgender students to use whichever bathroom matches their gender identity.

In a Facebook post Wednesday, Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) said he opposed that directive and supports Mr. Trump’s decision to change Mr. Obama’s policy. He reiterated that stance in a telephone town hall Thursday night.

The congressman added that he believes the transgender bathroom debate should decided by individual states and school districts.

“I do not support discriminating against people based on sexual orientation and LGBT Americans deserve and need protections,” he said. “I’m greatly concerned about the challenge of prosecuting a man, for example, who isn’t confused at all about his ‘internal sense of gender,’ but uses it as an excuse to access a girls’/women’s bathroom or locker room. It’s a very difficult element to prosecute that man for, and we must also protect that young girl/woman who rightfully doesn’t want a man to take advantage of this policy while she is going to the bathroom or showering in a bathroom/locker room.”

Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) said in a text message Thursday that he also believes the issue should be decided at the state level.

“I believe the federal government should be concentrating on issues like national security,” he added.

State Senator Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) didn’t return messages seeking comment for this story.

David Gamberg, superintendent for the Greenport and Southold school districts, said by email Friday his districts have received the state education department’s directive that nothing has changed with transgender student rights.

“Transgender students, like all students, must feel safe and welcomed in all public schools,” he said.

Riverhead school district Superintendent Nancy Carney and Anne Smith, superintendent for the Mattituck-Cutchogue district, didn’t return messages seeking comment. Schools were closed this week for break.

Raymond Ankrum, executive director and principal at the Riverhead Charter School, which runs a K-8 program, said in an email Thursday that although his school hasn’t had to implement a transgender bathroom policy during his tenure, he supports the state’s directive challenging Mr. Trump’s decision.

“First immigration, now reversing laws that impact the LGBTA community — it is as if the current administration is going above and beyond to promote bigotry,” he said. “I simply cannot support this.”

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File photo: A number of Riverhead Middle School students participate in the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. The club works to make the school a more welcome place for LGBT youth and gives the students a place to discuss national, local and personal issues. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)