By Anita Kumar

The Trump administration Wednesday told public school districts across the nation that they no longer have to allow transgender students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity.

The word came in a statement from Education Secretary Betsey DeVos that she was withdrawing a directive issued under President Barack Obama that required school districts to let transgender students use whichever bathroom conformed to their gender identity or risk the loss of federal funding.

At the same time, the Trump administration told the Supreme Court that the Obama administration bathroom directive had been withdrawn. The court was scheduled to hear a challenge to the directive next month.

The Trump withdrawal of the Obama directive drew immediate criticism from gay and lesbian groups, which accused him of backtracking on a campaign pledge to protect transgender students.

"What could possibly motivate a blind and cruel attack on young children like this?" asked Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, which bills itself as the nation's largest civil rights organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people. "These transgender students simply want to go to school in the morning without fear of discrimination or harassment. The consequences of this decision will no doubt be heartbreaking."

But new guidance from the Trump administration cautioned that transgender students are still protected from bullying and other discrimination.

"Please note that this withdrawal of these guidance documents does not leave students without protections from discrimination, bullying, or harassment," the Department of Education said in a "dear colleague" letter to be sent to school districts.

"All schools must ensure that all students, including LGBT students, are able to learn and thrive in a safe environment," the letter said. "The Department of Education Office for Civil Rights will continue its duty under law to hear all claims of discrimination and will explore every appropriate opportunity to protect all students and to encourage civility in our classrooms."

The new directive comes nine months after Obama threatened to withhold federal money to schools that didn't allow students to use bathrooms matching their gender identity.

"I've made this clear and the president's made it clear throughout the campaign that he is a firm believer in states' rights and that certain issues like this are not best dealt with at the federal level," White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters at his daily briefing Wednesday.

During the campaign, Trump initially said transgender people should be able to use the bathroom of their choice, though he later backtracked and said states should decide.

"People go, they use the bathroom that they feel is appropriate," Trump said in April. "There has been so little trouble." Later, he said: "I just think it should be states' rights. I think many things actually should be states' rights, but this is a perfect example of it."

Thirteen states _ Texas, Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia and Wisconsin _ had sued Obama over the guidance.

Last week, Trump's Justice Department asked to withdraw a motion filed by Obama last year over a temporary injunction blocking his guidance.

"They can try to call this states' rights or religious freedom but it's actually nothing more than mean-spirited bullying of children," said Zac Petkanas, senior adviser for the Democratic National Committee. "I hope Donald Trump feels like a real tough guy using the most powerful office in the world to pick on struggling kids who already face torturous harassment and mistreatment nearly every day of their lives."

Various advocacy groups had said that Attorney General Jeff Sessions and DeVos disagreed on whether to rescind the Obama guidance, but Spicer denied those reports.

"The conclusions everybody in the administration is agreed upon," he said. "There is no daylight between anybody, between the president, between any of the secretaries."

Neither Obama nor Trump singled out North Carolina, which last year enacted a law overturning a city ordinance protecting LGBT rights. Texas is considering a similar bill that would require those in public schools and government buildings to use the bathroom that corresponds with their "biological sex."

The North Carolina legislation, known as HB2, barred Charlotte 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 it conflicted with federal standards and laws such as Title IX, which makes up part of North Carolina's federal allocations for public education.

The Obama Justice Department sued the state, calling the law a violation of civil rights. North Carolina's new governor, Roy Cooper, proposed a compromise to repeal it, but Republican legislative leaders said they wouldn't support the repeal.

"This administration, and this president, has vowed to be an ally of the LGBTQ community; yet this action is a direct contradiction to that declaration," said Matt Thorn, executive director of OutServe-SLDN, an organization pushing for LGBT equality for the military.

In January, the White House announced Trump would leave in tact an Obama executive order that protected gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the workplace.

"President Trump continues to be respectful and supportive of LGBTQ rights, just as he was throughout the election," the White House said in a statement. "The president is proud to have been the first ever GOP nominee to mention the LGBTQ community in his nomination acceptance speech, pledging then to protect the community from violence and oppression."

(c)2017 McClatchy Washington Bureau