How California protects transgender students

A transgender 9-year-old who attends third grade in Los Angeles Unified School District.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Last week, the Obama administration told schools they need to allow transgender students to experience every aspect of school as the gender they express.

T -- we used her first initial to maintain her privacy -- is a third-grade student in Los Angeles Unified School District who we wrote about Monday. 

T began using the girls bathroom this school year, and her teachers refer to her as a girl. Her family felt more comfortable about letting her transition because California is among the strongest states when it comes to protecting the rights of transgender students. Having supportive friends and living in a liberal West L.A. environment also helped.

The decision might be difficult to make for other families. Without knowing much about the state's and district's policies toward transgender students, it's hard to predict how a school should react.

Here is a guide to the policies and rights of transgender students in Los Angeles.

What rights do transgender students have in California?

State law specifies that students cannot be discriminated against based on gender identity or gender expression. School districts are responsible for keeping students safe, preventing violations of students’ rights and addressing problems. 

California lawmakers clarified protections with a law that took effect in 2014, AB 1266, which specifies that transgender students in California have the right to participate in school activities, including sports, and use the bathrooms and locker rooms for the gender they identify with.

What rights do transgender students have in the Los Angeles Unified School District?

Judy Chiasson, coordinator for the district's Human Relations, Diversity & Equity office, wrote the district’s first policy protecting transgender students from bullying and discrimination in 2004. The district strengthened that language in 2014 after AB 1266 took effect. 

The 2014 policy specifies that there doesn't need to be a medical threshold for a school to accept the gender identity a student expresses. 

The policy states that transgender students must be treated as the gender with which they identify throughout their school experience. That includes the name by which they're addressed and bathroom or locker room use.  

The district will change a student's name and gender in the official records system -- which might extend to report cards and discipline records -- only after a legal name change. But a school still has to note in the student's official record that the student prefers a different name, and the student's preferred name will be on "unofficial" documents including rosters, diplomas and yearbooks. 

Chiasson frequently trains staff at L.A. Unified schools. So if you want educators to be better-equipped, you can contact her office and ask for a school visit. For those outside the district, other organizations and experts also help teach schools how to treat transgender students.

What if a student is not in California?

California has some of the strongest protections for transgender students. State laws vary: here’s a map of anti-bullying laws and nondiscrimination laws for transgender students.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued guidelines Friday that tell schools that transgender students are protected under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.

The federal agency investigates violations and threatens to pull a district's federal funding unless they comply with the requirements to address a problem. So far, the feds haven't withheld any money for this reason.

However, Title IX doesn’t explicitly list transgender people as a protected group -- the Obama administration has interpreted it that way. This reading has remained unchallenged for the most part, and a federal appeals court supported the interpretation in a ruling last month. But the policy is still vulnerable to political changes, especially as it comes months before a presidential election.

Now, the stance that transgender students are protected is being challenged. North Carolina recently passed a controversial law requiring people to use the bathrooms consistent with their "biological sex," including in schools. The Department of Justice threatened to block implementation of the law; the state sued the federal government last week. The Justice Department then sued the state as well as public entities such as the University of North Carolina, alleging that they are violating Title IX.

What can a California student or parents do if their rights are being violated?

Students or parents can file a complaint with the district and with the state, or with the U.S. Department of Education. 

Advocates and lawyers said they often counsel students to first try to talk directly to the district to resolve a complaint. Failing that, they might consider filing a Title IX complaint with the feds rather than with the state.

A primary difference between the state and national departments is that the state has an appeals process, whereas the Office for Civil Rights -- during the Obama administration, at least -- conducts an entire investigation from scratch. In order to appeal at the state level, a family must first (in most cases, barring immediate danger) have complained to the school district, and have received its decision. The district has to complete its investigation in 60 days.

If a student or the student's family is unhappy with that, they have 15 days to appeal to the state. The California Department of Education will then ask for the investigation files from the district, and determine whether it fulfilled its obligation to thoroughly investigate and address an incident, said Sophia Aguilar, CDE's staff services manager of the Education Equity, Uniform Complaint Procedure appeals office.

In 2013, the state auditor found that the state often took too long to resolve complaints. CDE spokesman Bill Ainsworth said the agency has since improved its nondiscrimination efforts by creating a new office devoted to the cause.

Asaf Orr, an attorney with the National Center for Lesbian Rights, filed a complaint for a family in a Northern California school district in 2011. The district received the state’s response in 2015.

Orr said he would encourage students and families to go the Office for Civil Rights route because the new state department office hasn’t yet proven itself.

Students can also take legal action and file complaints in federal court to gain access to facilities or address mistreatment -- that’s actually what would lead to the clearest interpretations of federal law, Orr said.

But the litigation process can be long and difficult for families, including depositions from opposing lawyers and allowing access to medical and mental health records, he said. And while the student’s identity is protected in court documents, the process and many records are still often public.