The Obama administration on Friday told schools and colleges nationwide they must allow transgender students access to bathrooms consistent with their gender identity.
The Justice Department and the Education Department, in guidance directed at every American public school district, admonished educators to treat transgender students consistent with their gender identity, regardless of what sex is listed on student records.
The guidance, which cites the gender equity law Title IX, further injects the federal government into a heated debate over controversial anti-LGBT state legislation, including a North Carolina law that bars transgender students from bathrooms that don't match their birth gender. The Justice Department on Monday filed a civil rights lawsuit against North Carolina.
"No student should ever have to go through the experience of feeling unwelcome at school or on a college campus," Education Secretary John King Jr. said in a statement.
King told HuffPost last week that he condemned state laws prohibiting trans students from using sex-segregated facilities like restrooms that match their gender identity.
Friday's guidance tells schools that they must take action to prevent harassment of students based on their identity as transgender, and that they cannot prevent trans students from using bathroom or locker room facilities that correspond with their gender identity.
Federal officials said the guidance responds to a "growing chorus of educators, parents, and students around the country" asking how schools must treat transgender students in compliance with Title IX and other civil rights laws. The Education Department has previously reminded schools that Title IX protects trans students from discrimination, but Friday's materials include comprehensive advice -- a Dear Colleague letter analyzing legal implications and a 25-page document outlining policy suggestions.
"Under Title IX, a school must treat students consistent with their gender identity even if their education records or identification documents indicate a different sex," the letter states. "The Departments have resolved Title IX investigations with agreements committing that school staff and contractors will use pronouns and names consistent with a transgender student’s gender identity."
If a school provides sex-segregated activities and facilities, "transgender students must be allowed to participate in such activities and access such facilities consistent with their gender identity," the letter says. It adds that schools are not allowed to segregate based on "broad generalizations or stereotypes about the differences between transgender students and other students of the same sex."
The letter is signed by Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the Education Department, and Vanita Gupta, the top civil rights attorney in the Justice Department.
The letter also addresses university housing, declaring that schools must allow transgender students to "access housing consistent with their gender identity." This means a university could be held in violation of Title IX for barring a student who was assigned male at birth, but identifies as a female, from living in a women's dorm.
If a school refuses to fix a policy that violates the law, the U.S. could revoke federal funding, which could shut down a college or university.
The letter notes that Title IX does not apply to admission of students to single-gender schools, like women's colleges, or for fraternities or sororities' membership.
Read the Dear Colleague letter issued on Friday:
Tyler Kingkade covers higher education and is based in New York. You can contact him at email@example.com, or find him on Twitter: @tylerkingkade.