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On Friday, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a suburban Jacksonville school district must allow transgender students to access restrooms that match their gender identity.
Drew Adams, 19, a former student at Allen D. Nease High School in Ponte Vedra, Florida, transitioned in 2015 and began using the boys’ restroom at the start of his freshman year, without incident.
However, an anonymous complaint was soon lodged against him, and the school, taking its cues from the St. John’s County School Board, told Adams he could only use gender-neutral restrooms.
In 2017, Adams sued the school board, arguing its district-wide policy barring transgender students from sex-segregated restrooms that match their gender identity is discriminatory, violating students’ rights under both the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972.
In court, Adams’ lawyers, from Lambda Legal, argued that the policy sends a message to transgender students that they are undeserving of the privacy, respect, and protections afforded to their cisgender peers.
The district, meanwhile, argued that allowing Adams to use the boys’ restroom would pose a threat to the privacy or safety of cisgender students, who might feel uncomfortable sharing facilities with someone they consider to be of the opposite sex.
But the 11th Circuit upheld the lower court’s ruling in 2-1 decision, finding that the district’s policy is indeed discriminatory and that Adams should have been allowed to use the boys’ restroom.
Citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in the Bostock case finding that employment laws prohibiting sex discrimination apply equally to instances where LGBTQ individuals are the target of discrimination, the court found the policy violated Adams’ constitutional rights.
“Bostock confirmed that workplace discrimination against transgender people is contrary to law. Neither should this discrimination be tolerated in schools,” Circuit Judge Beverly Martin wrote on behalf of the court, joined by Circuit Judge Jill Pryor. “The School Board’s bathroom policy, as applied to Mr. Adams, singled him out for different treatment because of his transgender status. It caused him psychological and dignitary harm.
“A public school may not punish its students for gender nonconformity. Neither may a public school harm transgender students by establishing arbitrary, separate rules for their restroom use,” Martin added. “The evidence at trial confirms that Mr. Adams suffered both these indignities. The record developed in the District Court shows that the School Board failed to honor Mr. Adams’s rights under the Fourteenth Amendment and Title IX.”
Adams, who now attends the University of Central Florida, and his legal team celebrated the long-awaited victory.
“Today, the court sent a clear message that schools must treat transgender students with the same dignity and respect as any other student,” Tara Borelli, counsel at Lambda Legal, said in a statement.
“The trial court was correct when it ruled that the law requires that Drew Adams be treated like every other boy and be allowed to use the boys’ restroom. We are glad the court saw the school board’s policy as unjust and discriminatory, and affirmed the inherent dignity of transgender students.”
“I am very happy to see justice prevail, after spending almost my entire high school career fighting for equal treatment,” Adams said. “High school is hard enough without having your school separate you from your peers and mark you as inferior. I hope this decision helps save other transgender students from having to go through that painful and humiliating experience.”
The circuit court’s decision is significant, as it marks the first time a federal appeals court has decided in favor of a transgender student since the Bostock decision, and only the third time in history, following the 7th Circuit’s 2017 decision finding that a school district in Kenosha, Wisconsin, had discriminated against transgender student Ash Whitaker by denying him access to the restroom. That case was later settled out of court.
The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals had also previously ruled, on narrow grounds, that Virginia transgender student Gavin Grimm had a right to pursue a claim against the Gloucester County School Board for sex discrimination, but that ruling was later reversed after the Trump administration rescinded the Obama-led Department of Education’s guidance that the court had used to justify its findings.
A lower court judge has since ruled in Grimm’s favor, on the much broader principle that anti-transgender discrimination is sex discrimination, and the school board has appealed that decision to the 4th Circuit for reconsideration.
Erica Kasper, Adams’s mother, expressed hope that the case would be helpful to other transgender students who are struggling with accessing facilities in their schools.
“Our family is extremely relieved that the court sided with our son, and affirmed it was discriminatory to deny him equal access to the restroom. It was so painful to watch our son suffer discrimination at the hands of his school, when the only thing he should have to worry about is getting a good education,” Kasper said in a statement. “I hope all schools across the country are paying attention to what we went through and to this decision.”
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