LAS VEGAS — A transgender student who wanted to use the boy’s bathroom and locker room at his school in Nevada has sparked a new round of debate among legislators over the issue.
In September, the 13-year-old transgender boy made a request to use the male-designed facilities at his middle school in Elko County.
The school board rejected his request, prompting the threat of legal action by the American Civil Liberties Union.
So far, three conservative state lawmakers have weighed in on the issue after criticizing a new anti-bullying law that broadly protects transgender students and others.
They suggested consideration of a bill in the next session that leaves the issue of transgender bathroom use to school districts or revisiting a failed measure that would require students to use bathrooms corresponding to their biological sex.
In the past decade, requests involving transgender bathroom use have become a regular battle around the country with court decisions on individual cases that have gone both ways.
Anti-discrimination laws that broadly protect transgender people can lack specific guidance on the bathroom issue, said Jody L. Herman of the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law.
In Elko, the school district’s year-old policy banning discrimination, harassment and bullying of transgender students states that their rights to restrooms must be balanced on a case-by-case basis with the privacy rights of the other students.
The school board president cited the policy and said lawyers were consulted before the trustees voted unanimously against the request by the 13-year-old. The decision was made after a two-hour discussion in a meeting room packed with people mostly opposed to allowing bathroom choice among transgender students.
Among those in the room were three Republican lawmakers. Assemblymen Jim Wheeler of Minden and Ira Hansen of Sparks both traveled hours outside of their districts to join Assemblyman John Ellison of Elko, who urged the board to reject the request for the sake of all of 9,600 Elko students.
They also trashed the state’s new anti-bullying law, which revised the definition of bullying and created a new office within the Nevada Department of Education to handle reported incidents.
Gov. Brian Sandoval touted it in May as one of his proudest accomplishments. Wheeler, however, said at the school board meeting that he never would have voted for it if he had known all the details at the time, the Elko Daily Free Press reported.
Ellison said he plans to pursue a new bill in the next legislative session so school districts can have the final word when dealing with such requests.
“If you want all the bathrooms, (then) I got a real problem with kids that feel uncomfortable,” he said.
The Elko case could also be the catalyst for revisiting another related measure in the last session. A bill requiring students to use bathrooms corresponding to their biological sex didn’t pass, making Nevada one of eight states to consider and reject such a policy, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality, which tracks the issue.
Calling it a new political hot potato in the state, Hansen said there is support for bringing the bill back or taking the measure to voters as a ballot initiative.
For now, the middle school student is expected to continue to use the unisex restrooms available in the nurse’s office, counselor’s office and the special education department.
The American Civil Liberties Union has threatened legal action, claiming the school board action violates state and federal anti-discrimination laws.
“To provide that student access is the responsibility of the school board — not to find ways to side with the community because there might be a majority that either doesn’t understand or doesn’t accept the gender identity that the student is presenting themselves in,” said Tod Story, executive director of ACLU of Nevada.