Ray Carter | April 19, 2022

Stillwater board refuses to change bathroom policy

Ray Carter

Despite significant opposition from district parents, the Stillwater Board of Education has declared it will not change the school’s policy of allowing boys who say they identify as females to use the girls’ bathrooms, declaring in a resolution that “no binding authority has been issued, promulgated, rendered or adopted in this State that requires the district to direct transgender students to use the restroom that aligns with their biological gender.”

The resolution, adopted unanimously, stated that “the Board of Education intends to continue the District’s practice of permitting transgender students to use students restrooms that align with their gender identity unless it has no choice but to alter its practice because of binding authority directing otherwise.”

At recent meetings of the Stillwater Board of Education, parents have urged the board to change its bathroom policy. Several women have stressed that middle-school girls already face significant emotional challenges during puberty that will be made worse if they are forced to share bathroom spaces with males.

In addition, parents have noted the Stillwater district’s bathroom policy effectively allows any male at any time to use the girls’ bathrooms, so long as he claims to identify as a transgender female at that moment, increasing the opportunity for sexual assault and harassment in girls’ bathrooms. In one high-profile instance in Loudoun County, Virginia, a teenage boy who used the female bathrooms at school was convicted of the associated sexual assault of two girls.

Critics of Stillwater’s bathroom policy have noted that district school buildings have single-stall bathrooms that can be easily used by the small share of students who are not comfortable using a bathroom that aligns with their biological gender.

In defending its policy, the board’s resolution noted that the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE), which is led by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, has provided the district with “non-binding legal authorities in support of the district’s practice to permit students to use restroom facilities that align with their gender identity.”

A spokesperson for Hofmeister recently said that OSDE affirmed to Stillwater Public Schools that “legal precedent has addressed the need for equal access, including facilities.”

However, Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor has sent a letter to the Stillwater district noting, “No legal precedent currently requires Oklahoma schools to open women’s restrooms and locker rooms to biological males, or vice versa …”

Oklahoma Secretary of Education Ryan Walters has also sent a letter to the Stillwater district stating, “Your incorrect interpretation of Title IX and use of court cases with no jurisdiction over Oklahoma gives you no right to allow men to use the girls’ restrooms in our schools. The US Department of Education’s rules, that your school board claims ordered this travesty, simply allowed school districts to choose their own path—and Stillwater has chosen poorly.”

OSDE’s endorsement of Stillwater’s bathroom policy relies, primarily, on guidance issued by the Biden administration. However, federal guidance on the issue has shifted repeatedly through the years. For most of the Obama administration, federal officials allowed bathroom access to be based on biological gender but shifted to a “gender identity” standard in 2016, which was then reversed throughout the Trump administration, before being reinstated again by the Biden administration.

Notably, Hofmeister previously opposed the same federal guidance on bathroom policy her agency now says is legally binding for all schools. In 2016, Hofmeister issued a statement calling the Obama administration’s guidance “an outrageous overreach by the federal government” and said it “nearly defies belief that the Obama Administration now wants to direct how Oklahoma schools and districts operate our bathrooms.”

Since that time, Hofmeister has switched parties and is now seeking the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial nomination.

The Stillwater Board of Education resolution acknowledged the letters from O’Connor and Walters, saying the information provided by OSDE “is inconsistent with the information received from the State Secretary of Education and the State Attorney General.”

The resolution then asked OSDE and the State Board of Education to effectively strip districts of local control on the issue and instead “promulgate an emergency rule that provides clear directives to all Oklahoma public school districts concerning the use of student restrooms.”

A request for comment was sent to Hofmeister. As of publication, her office had not responded.

The Stillwater board’s choice to double down on its transgender bathroom policy came the same day state lawmakers advanced legislation that would shift school-board general elections to the November ballot. Critics have long argued spring school-board elections draw very low turnout and that November elections will provide a much higher level of community input.

Research published by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University in January 2020 validates many concerns raised by critics of spring school-board elections. The working paper reviewed data from four states, including Oklahoma, and found the small share of voters participating in spring school-board elections were not representative of families served by school districts, meaning school boards were less likely to respond to the concerns of the families served by the district.

Researchers found significant discrepancies in the racial and economic composition of school-board voters compared to district students and found that “the majority of voters in a typical school board election in each of the four states we examine is ‘unlikely’ to have children.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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