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Future unknown for Missouri's ‘bathroom bill’; K-12 advocates say districts ‘already handling this’

A sign shows support of transgender students at the St. Louis LGBT rally. ( Feb. 25, 2017)
File photo | Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
A sign shows support of transgender students at the St. Louis LGBT rally Saturday.

It appears Missouri’s Republican legislative leaders may be hesitating over whether to allow the so-called “bathroom bill” to move forward in its current form, though the measure’s sponsor says that isn’t the case. 

Senate Bill 98 would require transgender students at K-12 public schools to use restrooms, locker rooms and shower facilities that correspond to their gender at birth. Schools could designate alternate facilities for transgender students, but if those students choose to use other facilities, it would have to be for their gender at birth.

Two days after the bill received a committee hearing, Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin, and House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, said local school districts should be able to work out their own solutions.

Missouri Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin, in 2017.
Credit Marshall Griffin | St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin, says local school districts should be able to handle providing bathroom facilities for transgender students.

“I think local school districts can handle that, if that’s what they want to do,” Richard told reporters last week. “I’m of a mind to let them handle their own business, and if they can’t, we’ll see what we can do – but right now I think they’re willing to do that.”

Richardson told them much the same, that “these decisions were best left to local school boards.” Both leaders declined interviews on the topic with St. Louis Public Radio.

Opponents of the bill say it would violate students’ privacy rights and put them at increased risk for bullying, harassment, and physical violence. At the LGBT rally in St. Louis over the weekend, several signs took issue with the measure, such as: “Flush away transphobia ... NO SB 98, No HB 202” and “It's not about bathrooms, like it wasn't about drinking fountains.”

Missouri House Bill 202 is more like North Carolina’s law in that it would apply to everyone and to all public buildings, but so far that bill has not been scheduled for a public hearing. Without one, it will automatically die.

Sen. Ed Emery, the Lamar Republican sponsoring Senate Bill 98, said he hasn’t seen any effort to keep it from moving forward. But in light of his party leaders’ comments, Emery said he may make a few changes; the Senate Education committee has not yet scheduled a vote.

“I want to talk to the leadership and talk to the (committee) chairman and find out if, in fact, there is some thinking about (being) as sensitive as possible to local (school) leadership, how we can maybe change some language in the bill or add some language,” he said, “so that we can both give some guidance, but also insist that there was a local plan, and that that local plan was clearly advertised to the parents.”

School organizations react

Emery’s bill is opposed by the Missouri National Education Association, or NEA, one of two labor unions that represent teachers in the state.

“School districts are (already) handling this,” Missouri NEA legislative director Otto Fajen said. “For the state to then come in after the fact with a state law that’s drafted in a way to force school districts to change things that are already working, we think is very counterproductive.”

Susan Goldammer of the Missouri School Boards Association wants lawmakers to hold off on passing SB 98, even though her group is officially neutral.

Credit Sen. Ed Emery via Facebook
Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar, sponsor of Senate Bill 98.

“Our lobbyists are governed by resolutions which are adopted by our delegate assembly, and we do not have a resolution on this particular matter,” she said. “I can tell you, however, that school districts do not want to be in the middle of conflicting state and federal laws. MSBA hopes that the legislature will wait until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on this issue, which should take place this spring.”

Columbia’s public schools added gender and gender identity toits nondiscrimination policy in 2015, according to spokesperson Michelle Baumstark, “prior to any official legislation or federal/state level communication or action on the issue.”

The Wentzville school district did not say where it stands on SB 98, but Community Relations director Mary LaPak provided the following statement:

“In the WSD, we have always worked with families and students to meet their individual needs and provide a safe and welcoming learning environment every day and we will continue to do that. We routinely make accommodations for students in our schools and some of those accommodations may include making a staff restroom, or another single-stall restroom, available for a student who is uncomfortable using a gender specific bathroom. “We support civil discussion of matters that affect our students, and we adjust our policies based on changes to state and federal law, but our primary focus is to educate students in a safe and respectful environment. So we will continue to do what we have always done, which is to address each student’s needs on an individual basis.”

The Clayton school district opposes the bill, according to spokesman Chris Tennill:

“We believe that there are many decisions in public education that are best left up to the discretion of a local school board. Deciding which bathroom a student should use is certainly one of them and definitely not an issue we feel needs to be legislated. Local control is a fundamental principle of public education in Missouri. School districts need to retain the flexibility to make individual decisions that are in the best interests of their students and their communities.”

And at least one school district is taking a “wait and see” approach. Jefferson City Public Schools spokeswoman Amy Berendzen said the district is withholding comments until they receive direction from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the U.S. Supreme Court.

The St. Louis Public School District didn’t respond to a request for comment, nor did Fort Zumwalt.

On Tuesday, a federal judge ruled against a school district in western Pennsylvania that barred transgender students from using restrooms that correspond with how they identify themselves. The plaintiff in that case is Juliet Evancho, whose younger sister, Jackie, sang the national anthem at President Donald Trump’s inauguration ceremony.

The national landscape

Missouri’s K-12 bathroom bill is a version of broader transgender measures moving through various state legislatures. North Carolina passed the nation’s first (and so far only) law restricting bathroom use in all public and government facilities to a person’s gender at birth. Texas lawmakers are considering a bill similar to North Carolina’s — with full knowledge of the potential financial fallout in the Tar Heel state.

Alabama lawmakers are weighing legislation that would require attendants to be present in all “mixed-gender” public bathrooms to guard against crimes such as molestation or assault.

But South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard last year vetoed a measure similar to the one before of Missouri lawmakers. Daugaard initially had been receptive to the bill. but later said that it didn’t “address any pressing issue” and that such decisions should be made by school officials.

Emery’s bill would have been moot if a transgender rights directive issued by former President Barack Obama were still in place.

The Justice and Education Departments rescinded it last week, meaning public school districts will no longer be at risk of losing federal funding if they don’t allow transgender students to use facilities that match their gender identity. The Trump administration said it should be up to states to decide how to handle it, and claimed Obama’s legal arguments did not provide enough analysis into how it would follow Title IX guidelines to prevent discrimination.

The Trump administration’s reasoning seems to conflict with a federal opinion issued in October in Illinois. In a case involving a transgender high school student in a Chicago suburb, Magistrate Judge Jeffrey Gilbert wrote that “high school students do not have a constitutional right to not share restrooms or locker rooms with transgender students whose sex assigned at birth is different than theirs.” A U.S. District judge has not yet ruled on Gilbert’s recommendation.

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.