Public schools would be allowed to offer gender-neutral bathrooms to students under a revised version of a controversial bill setting gender restrictions on school bathrooms and locker rooms.
The revised bill clarifies that if a school chooses to open a gender-neutral bathroom to accommodate students who do not wish to use bathrooms assigned to their biological gender, it must have stalls with floor-to-ceiling partitions or walls.
Bill co-author Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, said Monday the revision aims to allow schools already offering gender-neutral bathrooms to students — including the Madison and Watertown school districts — to comply should the bill be enacted into law.
The bill requires school boards to designate bathrooms and locker rooms by gender, require schools to make special accommodations for students who do not wish to use bathrooms assigned to their biological gender, and to require the state Department of Justice to defend school districts in lawsuits alleging the policy is discriminatory.
Dan Rossmiller, lobbyist for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said Monday requiring school districts to provide floor-to-ceiling partitions or walls in gender-neutral bathrooms could force school districts to spend money on retrofitting a bathroom that has already been remodeled.
Rossmiller also said he remains “very concerned and deeply troubled” that the revised bill does not remove the lawsuit provisions of the bill.
“I don’t understand why we’re encouraging people to sue school districts,” he said. “That’s troubled me from the start.
“It puts us into a position where if we comply with state law, we could be in trouble with the feds ... and if we don’t comply with the state law, then a parent or guardian or pupil could sue us under this bill. There’s no safe harbor for a school district under this bill.”
If the bill passes, the state law could put Wisconsin in conflict with a federal policy.
In 2014, the Office for Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Education said federal student non-discrimination law covered sexual identity, and federal officials have said school districts that do not allow transgender students to use bathrooms assigned to the gender with which they identify are violating students’ civil rights.
Under Kremer’s bill, a student who identifies as a gender that is not his or her biological gender may request special accommodations.
Parents may also file a written complaint if they feel their child’s privacy is being violated because of transgender students’ use of a school’s bathroom or locker room. A school district then has 30 days to “investigate and attempt to resolve the complaint.”
If the complaining parents are not satisfied with the school district’s resolution, they may file a lawsuit against the district seeking money or other kinds of damages that are undefined in the bill.
At a November hearing on the bill sponsored by Kremer and Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, Kremer and supporters said the legislation seeks to protect all students’ privacy and prevent uncomfortable situations.
About 300 people attended that hearing. Opponents said the bill discriminates against transgender students by forcing them to use special accommodations.
An amendment to the bill released to the Wisconsin State Journal on Monday spells out what defines a gender-neutral bathroom, and defines “sex” as a student’s reproductive organs and the gender listed on a student’s birth certificate.
The bill also lists rules for special circumstances in which a person of the opposite gender would be allowed in a gender-specific bathroom, such as a grandmother taking her grandson to the restroom.
Students wanting special accommodations also would give the request to the school administrator rather than the district’s school board to avoid creating a public record, however federal student privacy laws restrict disclosure of such information in an identifiable way.
The bill is opposed by gay-rights and transgender advocates and public school advocates and representatives, including the state Department of Public Instruction. It is supported by Wisconsin Family Action, an organization advocating for Christian values.
Assembly Education Committee clerk Hariah Hutkowski said Tuesday it’s unclear when or if the bill will be scheduled for a committee vote and that more changes to the bill are in the works.