What should have been a simple trip to the bathroom for Michael Critchfield, a 15-year-old transgender boy in West Virginia, turned into a humiliating ordeal last month when his high school’s assistant principal allegedly berated and bullied him over his gender identity.
It was Friday, Nov. 27, and Michael, a sophomore at Liberty High School in Clarksburg, West Virginia, was preparing to depart for an after-school marching band trip. Their destination was 45 minutes away, so Michael decided to use the restroom one last time before boarding the bus.
Michael had gotten into the habit at school of checking to make sure no one was in the boys bathroom before using it. He’s not legally required to do so ― but he said he had wanted to avoid the potential for any confrontation.
Once he determined the boys room was empty that day, Michael went into a stall. Moments later, Lee Livengood, one of two assistant principals at the school, allegedly entered the bathroom and began questioning why Michael was using it.
“I saw he was blocking the entrance to the bathroom,” Michael told HuffPost in an interview on Monday. “He kept raising his voice and saying, ‘Why are you in this bathroom? You shouldn’t be here.’”
Livengood then allegedly challenged Michael to “come out here and use the urinal” if he’s really a boy. Michael explained he was assigned female at birth but identified as a male.
“If you can’t use this urinal, then you shouldn’t be in here,” Livengood shouted, according to Michael. “What if a student said you were checking them out in here?”
Some of Michael’s classmates could hear Livengood’s tirade down the hall. Feeling something was wrong, they alerted a parent who was chaperoning the band trip that day.
Livengood allegedly bullied Michael in the bathroom for three to four minutes before letting him leave. The chaperone was waiting outside the restroom as the teen drummer emerged, crying uncontrollably.
“I’m not going to lie, you freak me out.”
“I was like breaking down crying from all the stress,” Michael told HuffPost. “I was very anxious and frustrated. He wouldn’t let me talk. It was very traumatizing.”
The chaperone immediately confronted Livengood, who continued to misgender Michael and dismissed the incident as a simple “misunderstanding,” according to Michael.
“I wasn’t trying to be rude or anything,” Livengood allegedly said. “I’m not going to lie, you freak me out.”
Michael described the ordeal as “terrifying” and “traumatizing,” but decided to wait until after the band trip later that night to tell his mom what had happened. When Caroline picked her son up at school hours later, Michael and adults aware of the situation filled her in.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Caroline told HuffPost. “How could someone who’s supposed to be in an administrative position do something like this? ... It made me sick to my stomach.”
Caroline spoke with Liberty High School administrators and the Harrison County Schools assistant superintendent the next day. The school district officials apologized to the Critchfields and promised Livengood wouldn’t have any further contact with Michael and that there would be an investigation into the matter.
But about three weeks later, the Critchfields are still waiting for an update ― and an apology from Livengood. The assistant principal continues to to be at the school daily and has stationed himself in the cafeteria during Michael’s lunch period, which he hadn’t done previously, according to the Critchfields.
“I just want to feel safe and welcome in my school,” Michael said.
The Critchfields have tapped West Virginia’s American Civil Liberties Union to represent them, hoping the constitutional rights advocacy group can provoke a response from ― and meaningful change at ― the high school.
“It shocks the conscience that they’ve apparently taken no steps to discipline Mr. Livengood on this,” ACLU-WV Executive Director Joseph Cohen told HuffPost, adding that Michael has “suffered significant anxiety” since the incident.
On Monday, ACLU-WV sent a letter to Harrison County Schools Superintendent Mark Manchin on behalf of the Critchfields, requesting a meeting with the school district officials no later than Jan. 8.
As of Tuesday morning, Manchin had not responded to the letter. Neither Manchin nor a representative for Harrison County Schools responded to HuffPost’s multiple requests for comment for this story.
In their letter, ACLU-WV and the Critchfields proposed three steps the high school should take to remedy the situation: one, implement best practice policies in Harrison County schools for handling unique issues faced by LGBTQ students; two, create annual required training for administrators, teachers and staff at Harrison County schools on how to handle LGBTQ-specific issues; and three, enforce the “appropriate remedial discipline” of Livengood.
ACLU-WV contends Liberty High School administrators may have violated several school policies, as well as state and federal laws, in this instance and in subsequent months by their lack of action.
“We’ve got to make school a place where [transgender students] can learn, a place where they can feel safe. ... It’s a matter of life and death.”
Cohen said he believes the matter can be resolved without litigation, but noted the Critchfields are ready to “explore all options” if not.
Michael has stopped using the boys bathroom since his upsetting interaction with Livengood. He’s been given permission to use a bathroom in the school’s office, but doesn’t feel like he should have to be separated from his peers.
“It tears me down inside,” Michael said. “Everyone else gets to use the bathroom they identify with. It’s just not right.”
It’s not just Michael who suffers in an instance like this, Cohen told HuffPost. More than 50 percent of transgender male adolescents attempt suicide, and West Virginia has the highest percentage of teens who identify as transgender.
“Michael is not alone,” Cohen said. “There are lots of trans kids in West Virginia. We’ve got to improve the way they’re being treated. We’ve got to make school a place where they can learn, a place where they can feel safe. ... It’s a matter of life and death.”
UPDATE ― 12:45 p.m.: Harrison County Schools Superintendent Mark Manchin announced Tuesday afternoon that Livengood would be suspended with pay through Friday, effective immediately.
“Everyone is entitled to due process,” Manchin said during an interview with West Virginia radio show “Talkline” on Tuesday. “I thought it was inappropriate for him to be interacting with students right now.”
Manchin did not say why Livengood did not face disciplinary action until Tuesday. He said he does not feel Harrison County Schools should adopt new LGBTQ-specific policies, but noted that they were considering additional diversity training.
“I don’t think more needs to be done,” Manchin said. “This does not reflect on our employees at Harrison County Schools. We’re receptive to all types of students.”
ACLU-WV said the school district needed to do more than place Livengood on a four-day paid suspension.
“While we are heartened to hear the administration admit to wrongdoing, a four-day paid suspension of an employee is not sufficient,” ACLU-WV said in a statement to HuffPost.
“The Harrison County School District needs to make significant changes to its culture,” the statement continued. “We look forward to meeting with Mr. Manchin and developing a real plan to ensure that every student is safe.”
Clarification: This article previously misstated how long ago the confrontation occurred. As indicated elsewhere in the piece, it happened on Nov. 27, which was three weeks ago.