By Anita Kumar and Anna Douglas
Wading further into a spreading national debate, the Obama administration will tell all public school districts across the nation Friday that they should allow transgender students to use the bathrooms that match their gender identity.
A letter signed by officials at the Justice and Education departments, to be sent Friday morning, tells the schools they should ensure that all students, including transgender students, can attend school in an environment free from discrimination based on sex, according to the letter obtained by McClatchy.
"A school may not require transgender students to use facilities inconsistent with their gender identity or to use individual-user facilities when other students are not required to do so," it says.
The letter does not mandate any actions. It is considered guidance, though schools that do not abide could face a loss of federal aid, according to federal officials.
"We must ensure that our young people know that whoever they are or wherever they come from, they have the opportunity to get a great education in an environment free from discrimination, harassment and violence," Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. said in a statement.
The letter does not mention North Carolina, which recently enacted a law overturning a city ordinance protecting LGBT rights. The Justice Department is suing the state, calling that law a violation of civil rights. In the Friday action, federal officials say they are responding to numerous questions from educators, including from the National Association of Secondary School Principals, who are seeking guidance.
The administration's decree Friday won't change day-to-day bathroom use for North Carolina students, state schools Superintendent Dr. June Atkinson said late Thursday in a phone interview with McClatchy. The HB2 law is currently subject to several lawsuits, she said, and the legislation details no sanctions or direction for enforcement.
That means, she said, that school districts in North Carolina are already following bathroom use practices as outlined in the new Department of Education guidance expected Friday.
HB2, Atkinson said, would be in direct conflict with the administration's views and expressed standards. Atkinson mentioned another bill floated in North Carolina which would clamp down on school bullying and promote safety, including gender identity as a protected class.
"It's a very frustrating time for us in the state especially those who are in education," she said.
The Obama administration also will send a 25-page document describing policies in place in some schools around the country, such as installing privacy curtains or allowing students to change in bathroom stalls.
"These groundbreaking guidelines not only underscore the Obama administration's position that discriminating against transgender students is flat-out against the law, but they provide public school districts with needed and specific guidance guaranteeing that transgender students should be using facilities consistent with their gender identity," Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said late Thursday.
"This is a truly significant moment not only for transgender young people but for all young people, sending a message that every student deserves to be treated fairly and supported by their teachers and schools."
The move comes hours after the White House announced it wouldn't withhold education funding over HB2 until the state and justice department's dueling lawsuits work their way through courts.
That prompted North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory to post on Facebook Thursday night, "The White House just announced that it won't pull federal funding to North Carolina while we take them to court. Sometimes the only way to stop a bully is to stand your ground and stare them down."
North Carolina's Republican members of the House of Representatives had asked the Department of Education to say by Friday whether officials would punish the state for its controversial HB2 law by withholding federal funds from public schools and universities
Earlier, Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to McCrory arguing that HB2 treats gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people as "second-class citizens" and warned that it is jeopardizing federal funding for the state's education, transportation and health programs.
HB2 passed during a special legislative session in late March in order to bar Charlotte's city council from letting transgender people use public bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity _ not necessarily their birth sex. Republicans, and some Democrats, in the General Assembly voted in favor of addressing the bathroom issue and more in HB2.
Federal agencies launched a review of the law's implications and whether the measure conflicts with federal standards and laws such as Title IX, which makes up part of North Carolina's federal allocations for public education.
The U.S. Department of Education has never stripped funding from an entire state or even a specific school district over the issue of transgender students and restrooms _ even when the agency has investigated and found alleged flaws in student equality.
(c)2016 McClatchy Washington Bureau