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Appeals court rules transgender students must be able to access restrooms matching their gender identity

August 24, 2020


By: Lily Crespo Esq.

What happened? The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit upheld a lower court’s ruling that a Florida school district was wrong to deny trans male student Drew Adams access to the boys’ restroom.

“A public school may not punish its students for gender nonconformity,” Judge Beverly Martin wrote in the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling in Adams v. School Board of St. John’s County. “Neither may a public-school harm transgender students by establishing arbitrary, separate rules for their restroom use.

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.

What is the background of the case?

  • 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 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.
  • In July 2018, a federal judge ruled in Adams’ favor, outright rejecting the school board’s arguments in his opinion. The school board then appealed the ruling to the 11th Circuit.
  • 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.

Educator takeaway: The arena of transgender bathroom use continues to be a contentious source of legal challenges. Notably, this case is one of the first applications of the United States Supreme Court’s historic June 15 decision about LGBTQ workers’ rights. The ruling for Drew Adams, cited the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, which found that sex discrimination in the workplace, banned under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, includes discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The Eleventh Circuit arrived at the same reading of Title IX of the Education of 1972, which bans sex discrimination in education.

As you consider these and other issues, we recommend you speak with your school lawyer or contact Bea, Kevin, Megan, Beth, and Lily at 406-542-1300 to discuss these issues.


Kaleva Law

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