CINCINNATI -- Many students returning to classrooms this month may not think twice about it, but schools will be operating under new rules that guarantee access to the bathroom of choice for transgender students.
Last spring, the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Attorney General jointly issued guidance to all public K-12 schools and all public colleges and universities that emphasizes protection from discrimination for transgender students, teachers and staff.
It's part of the Title IX rules that bar schools from discriminating based on a student's gender. Growing awareness of students who identify as transgender prompted Obama administration officials to affirm that protection of sex discrimination applies to them.
Ground zero for culture war: The bathroom
The flash point for the federal rules has been who uses which bathrooms and showers. That's because the guidance instructs schools to allow students to access sex-segregated facilities "consistent with their gender identity."
Ohio joined other states in one of several federal lawsuits challenging the legality of the federal directive, arguing that the guidance usurps the power of local school districts and universities to set rules for themselves.
WCPO surveyed Greater Cincinnati school districts and universities to see what, if any, changes were afoot as a result of the federal guidelines.
Many of the school districts contacted declined to comment or offered minimal feedback on the hot-button issues.
"We have not had any requests," Norwood Superintendent Rob Amodio replied by email. "Once we do we will comply with all federal laws."
Erika Daggett, spokeswoman for Forest Hills School District, said the district's overarching goal is to make every student feel comfortable, safe and accepted.
The district is renovating all of its school buildings to include "family bathrooms," which are open to all genders.
Asked whether Forest Hills allows transgender students to choose the men's or women's room as they see fit, Daggett said, "We work with students and/or parents to develop appropriate plans on an individual basis."
Cincinnati Public Schools won't alter its policies after the federal guidance, believing that it already complies to anti-discrimination law.
"We do not make assumptions about people who identify as transgender, but do try to work out any issues on an issue-by-issue basis," said Janet Walsh, spokeswoman. "Our experience is that every situation is different, and that we could make a mistake by assuming that because a person identifies as transgender, they will automatically want to use a certain restroom, dress in a certain way, or so on."
She said the district's approach has successfully accommodated schools and students who identify as transgender.
Open arms on college campuses
University of Cincinnati and Xavier University are both embracing the idea of accommodating students of varying gender identities.
In May, Samantha Mathews, a trans woman pursuing a doctoral degree at XU, told WCPO that the university has embraced her, including welcoming her to dress as she likes and to use the restrooms of her choice.
Kate Lawson, Xavier's Title IX coordinator, said the university emphasizes respecting the rights of transgender students as part of a larger Jesuit tradition of social justice and anti-discrimination.
XU does not have a written policy regarding who can use which restrooms or showers, but Lawson said that she would vigorously defend any student who was discriminated against for using the facilities of his or her choice.
Xavier has 58 gender-neutral restrooms on campus.
Lawson said she welcomes uncomfortable but important conversations with students or parents who have concerns about, for example, trans women in a group shower room.
"Nobody is allowed to come in to harass or sexually assault anyone," she said. "There is this idea of trans people committing crimes. There is no research or data to support that."
Mary Beth McGrew, associate vice president and University of Cincinnati architect, said UC's accommodations have continuously involved, including signage.
"Some restrooms used to be gender-neutral, then we went to all-gender. Before that, it was unisex. We have evolved and we are putting in more each year," she said.
UC's policy calls for all-gender restrooms to be included in every new building, and older buildings are gradually adding all-gender options.
"College is a time when students celebrate or find their identity, and so we want to be respectful of that," McGrew said.
The changes have been strongly encouraged by interim President Beverly Davenport, who, as provost, ordered restrooms in the building that houses the provost's office to be converted to all-gender.
Phil Burress, president of Citizens for Community Values, is vehemently fighting the federal order for accommodation as government overreach and as a threat to women.
"We called (Ohio Attorney General) Mike DeWine the day we heard about it," he said. "We're fighting this thing tooth and nail."
Burress said the federal guidelines are "absolutely insane," in part because they allow anyone to change their sexual identity without question.
"Any boy who feels like a girl that day can go into a girl's bathroom or shower," he said. "What if a boy goes in and just stares at a girl showering? Would Xavier consider that harassment? And would you do anything about it?"
Asked about this scenario, Lawson responded that the federal guidelines do not "give any individual, whether they identify as transgender or not, the right to go into a shower room and engage in unwanted conduct of a sexual nature and/or conduct that may constitute sex discrimination."
She said Title IX requires any school that is notified of possible discrimination or harassment to investigate and take appropriate action.
"We would take these steps in this situation," Lawson said.
Court battles rage
Burress said he has received word from multiple school districts that they do not intend to comply with the transgender bathroom requirements. He said none would publicly identify themselves for fear of retribution.
He predicts the issues will come to a head in federal courts when a school district is denied federal funding for refusing to comply with the federal instructions.