AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Human Rights Commission is backing away from controversial plans to issue new guidelines for how schools should accommodate transgender students.
Commission members decided Monday to cancel a public hearing on the issue and to shelve, at least temporarily, work on a guidance document called “Sexual Orientation in Schools and Colleges.”
The proposed guidelines have sparked a heated debate over what steps, if any, schools should take to accommodate students who identify with the opposite gender rather than with their biological sex. The issue becomes particularly thorny when dealing with questions over transgender students’ use of locker rooms and bathrooms and ability to play on athletics teams.
“They made a decision not to move forward at this time with the guidance,” said Patricia Ryan, executive director of the Maine Human Rights Commission, the state agency charged with enforcing the state’s anti-discrimination laws.
“They are feeling that they want some time,” Ryan said. “There are cases coming before them and they want to figure out the best way to receive public input” on the guidelines.
Last month, the commission postponed a decision on the draft guidelines but elected to hold a public comment session after some parents and conservative organizations voiced strong opposition to the proposed document.
Among the draft advisory’s recommendations are that transgender students be allowed to use the bathrooms and locker rooms of the gender with which they identify.
The guidance is intended to help schools follow the anti-discrimination laws within the Maine Human Rights Act and to avoid complaints against schools filed with the commission. The Penobscot County Superior Court is reviewing a commission ruling against the Orono School Department, which had denied a transgender boy from using the girls bathroom.
While the commission did not take a formal vote on the issue, there appears to be unanimous agreement that work on the guidance document should be halted, at least for now.
All four of the commission members present supported shelving the proposal. The fifth member, Kenneth Fredette, had to leave Monday’s meeting before the issue was discussed. But Fredette was the sole commissioner to vote in March against holding a public hearing, arguing instead that the Legislature — not a commission of five unelected people — should address the issue.
“I think it’s a victory for common sense and sound reasoning on a very controversial issue,” Fredette said Tuesday of his fellow commissioners’ decision. “If the issue is going to be pursued, it has to be done in a sound way.”
The commission’s reversal caught several observers by surprise, however.
The sexual orientation advisory document was not listed on the commission’s agenda but, instead, came up during the “old business” portion of the meeting, Ryan said.
“I certainly would hope that the commission continues to consider the issue because it is clear that guidance is needed for the schools,” said Jennifer Levi, director of the transgender rights project at Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders.
GLAD, which is a New England-based legal organization focused on discrimination issues, has argued that it is important for the commission to hear from experts and teachers on the educational needs of transgender students.
But Levi said she did not believe a public hearing was appropriate because the Maine Human Rights Act reaffirmed by voters in 2005 makes it clear that schools have a legal obligation to provide equal opportunities for all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
“It wouldn’t have made sense to have a big public debate,” Levi said. “That is a matter of state policy that all youths must be provided with equal educational opportunities in school.”
Dick Durost, executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association, said he was pleased to hear the commission had opted to move slowly on the issue. The Principals’ Association had expressed strong reservations about the proposed guidance document.
“We would applaud the Human Rights Commission for their cautious approach to this sensitive issue,” Durost said.