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Schools, students struggle with impact of North Carolina’s sweeping anti-LGBT law

For some children in North Carolina public schools, going to the bathroom has always been an ordeal. Now, one week after the state’s lawmakers passed a widely-criticized anti-LGBT bill that bars transgender accommodations for public restrooms, things are even more complicated.

“I know kids who don’t go to the restroom all day long,” says Mark Jewell, vice president of the N.C. Association of Educators, one of the state’s most powerful teacher advocacy groups. “They have to wait until they go home. That’s just the reality some children face. And it’s heartbreaking to hear the rhetoric that the legislature and the governor are using.”

The policy and financial impacts on public schools, some leaders say, is the untold story of North Carolina’s sweeping anti-LGBT bill, which, in addition to overturning a transgender-friendly Charlotte ordinance over bathrooms, steamrolls local anti-discrimination protections for LGBT residents.

The message from state lawmakers, Jewell says, is that not all are welcomed in North Carolina. “We teach our kids not to discriminate,” said Jewell. “And we’re not seeing that modeled by our legislators, and particularly by our governor.”

Jewell says school districts, in the coming days, will face myriad questions about the impact on their own anti-discrimination rules, particularly whether school employees harassed or fired over their sexuality will have any means of filing grievances in North Carolina.

Among House Bill 2’s other stipulations, the bill jettisons the right to file civil cases over employment discrimination in North Carolina state courts, forcing such cases into more challenging and more costly federal court lawsuits.

Additionally, civil rights advocates, such as ACLU of N.C. Legal Director Chris Brook, say the legislation may imperil roughly $4.5 billion in the state’s share of federal funding based on Title IX of the nation’s education law, which forbids discrimination among federally-funded organizations based on sex.

Two years ago, leaders in the Obama administration’s U.S. Department of Education announced landmark guidelines declaring transgender students should fall under Title IX’s protections.

Last week’s legislation could place North Carolina in direct violation, experts like Brook say, despite a statement from Gov. Pat McCrory that declared the state law would not flout federal policy—something Brook called “patently false” this week.

“We’re putting $4.5 billion at stake to score political points by marginalizing an already marginalized community,” said Brook.

N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson told Policy Watch Wednesday that she believes schools will simply have to wait to see how courts administer the law’s provisions as it relates to Title IX funding and local, anti-discrimination rules, although Atkinson said she questions why the state needed the bill.

“One of the highest priorities we have as educators is to make sure all of our students feel safe in coming to our schools,” said Atkinson. “That, to me, is the biggest issue we must deal with related to this legislation.”

Jewell, meanwhile, agreed with the ACLU that the bill is a real risk for North Carolina schools’ federal funding.

“Our schools are already underfunded,” he said. “We’re 46th in per-pupil funding (in the nation, according to the National Association of Educators). We need every dollar we can get, and we could lose it over a piece of legislation that’s denying rights.”

Multiple legislators, as well as business and community leaders, have called for the General Assembly to repeal the law when it reconvenes in late April, even as Republican lawmakers and McCrory stand firm on its controversial stipulations, blaming the media for alleged mischaracterizations and castigating critics for “demonizing” the state during the controversy.

“Some have called our state an embarrassment,” McCrory said in a video statement Tuesday. “The real embarrassment is politicians not publicly respecting each other’s positions on complex issues.”

But this week, leaders with the ACLU and Equality N.C., a nonprofit advocating for LGBT residents, joined the calls for repeal, arguing lawmakers should install a comprehensive non-discrimination rule that covers the LGBT community. The groups also joined in a lawsuit challenging the law on the basis that its principles violate the guarantee of equal protection under the U.S. Constitution.

Legislators “exercised terrible governance, and once again as we’ve come to be familiar with, the people of North Carolina are paying the price for their bad behavior,” said Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality N.C.

Meanwhile, N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper—who is running for governor this fall against McCrory—declared Tuesday that his office would not defend the state’s law, meaning legislators will be forced to hire outside counsel for the case.

Make no mistake, according to Jewell, the furor is reverberating in state schools. On a daily basis, he said, transgender children are bullied or victimized in public school bathrooms matching their birth gender, says Jewell. Teachers, knowing the reality, will take these kids to teacher restrooms or allow them to visit bathrooms during low-volume hours.

And with some school districts in North Carolina approving LGBT-friendly, anti-bullying rules for students and anti-discrimination regulations for employees, education advocates say they wonder whether House Bill 2, North Carolina’s first statewide nondiscrimination rule—which conspicuously skips any LGBT provisions—will strip protections from school systems.

Atkinson said that schools, for the most part, have succeeded in dealing with the issue of bathroom use among transgender students without legislative intervention, based on her conversations with teachers and administrators across the state.

“I just believe we need to treat all children as god’s children,” Atkinson added.

At the moment, Jewell says, state lawmakers are doing just the opposite.

“Parents just want their children to go to school happy, come home safe and learn every day,” he said. “Now, because of this legislation, that’s not a guarantee for our kids.”


This article was first published by NC Policy Watch on March 30, 2016.

 

Billy Ball

Billy Ball is the education reporter at N.C. Policy Watch.