On May 28, 2019, the United States Supreme Court declined to review a decision issued by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals (“Third Circuit”) in Doe v. Boyertown Area School District, letting stand a Pennsylvania school district policy supportive of transgender students’ equal access to facilities.  Specifically, the United States Supreme Court opted not to review a school district policy which allowed students to access restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity.

In Boyertown, the Third Circuit upheld the district court’s decision not to enjoin a policy of the Pennsylvania’s Boyertown Area School District (“District”) that allowed students equal access to facilities, i.e., restrooms and locker rooms, consistent with their gender identity (“Equal Access Policy”). The District adopted the Equal Access Policy during the 2016/2017 school year in compliance with guidance issued on May 13, 2016 by the Obama Administration under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (“Title IX”), a federal law that prohibits discrimination based on sex.  The Obama Administration guidance provided, in part, that transgender students must be allowed to access facilities, such as restrooms and locker rooms, consistent with their gender identity.  The Trump Administration subsequently rescinded the 2016 guidance on February 22, 2017.

In reaching its decision, the three-judge panel of the Third Circuit ruled that the district court correctly decided not to stop the District’s Equal Access Policy because the Plaintiffs/Appellants, who were students of the District, were not likely to succeed on the merits of the case by arguing that the policy violated their constitutional right to bodily privacy or their right to be free from sex discrimination and sexual harassment under Title IX.  The Third Circuit and the district court similarly rejected the Plaintiffs’/Appellants’ argument that the Access Policy violated Pennsylvania’s state law governing invasion of privacy.

The Supreme Court’s decision not to hear Doe v. Boyertown Area School District does not have precedential value.  However, the decision is important because it signals that neither Title IX nor the constitutional right to bodily privacy necessarily prohibits school districts across the nation from adopting similar policies in support of transgender students’ access to facilities consistent with their gender identity.

California law already makes clear that school districts are required to allow students to use facilities consistent with their gender identity regardless of their sex assigned at birth. See Cal. Educ. Code § 221.5(f). Several other states have adopted similar laws or policies that allow students to use facilities based on their gender identity. 

A Closer Look at the “Boyertown” Case

In Doe v. Boyertown Area School District, 897 F.3d 518 (3d Cir. 2018), Plaintiffs/Appellants, District students by and through their parents/guardians, alleged, in relevant part, that the District’s Equal Access Policy violated their constitutional right to bodily privacy and subjected them to sexual harassment in violation of protections afforded under Title IX.  The Third Circuit disagreed and concluded that “the presence of transgender students in the locker and restrooms is not more offensive to constitutional or Pennsylvania-law privacy interests than the presence of other students who are not transgender.  Nor does their presence infringe on the plaintiffs’ rights under Title IX.” Id. at 521.

The Third Circuit upheld the district court’s decision to deny the request for an injunction because the Plaintiffs/Appellants failed to demonstrate that they were likely to succeed on the merits.  The Third Circuit further affirmed the district court’s conclusion because the Plaintiffs/Appellants failed to demonstrate they would have been irreparably harmed if the injunction were not granted. 

The Third Circuit agreed with the district court’s analysis that, “even if the [District’s Equal Access Policy] implicated the plaintiffs’ constitutional right to privacy, the state had a compelling interest in not discriminating against transgender students” and that “policy was narrowly tailored to serve that interest.” Id. at 525.

Constitutional Right to Bodily Privacy

The Plaintiffs/Appellants argued that the District’s Equal Access Policy violated their constitutional right to bodily privacy.  Specifically, they claimed that the policy subjected them to “unconsented intimate exposure to the opposite sex as a condition for using the very facilities set aside to protect their privacy.”  Id. at 531.  The Third Circuit recognized that a student has a constitutionally protected privacy right to avoid “disclosure of personal matters,” which includes “privacy interest in his or her partially clothed body.”  In support of their position, the Plaintiffs/Appellants argued that the constitutional right to privacy was violated because the District’s Equal Access Policy “permitted them to be viewed by the members of the opposite sex while partially clothed.”  Id. at 527.  The Third Circuit affirmed the district court’s rejection of this argument because the policy served a compelling interest in preventing discrimination against transgender students, and the policy “was narrowly tailored to that interest.”  Id. at 528.

The Third Circuit noted that “the constitutional right to privacy is not absolute” and must be weighed against other “important competing governmental interests.”  Id. at 528.  In examining the state’s compelling interest to prevent discrimination, the Third Circuit underscored the “extraordinary social, psychological, and medical risks” faced by transgender students.  Id. at 528.  By way of example, the Third Circuit highlighted that, “[i]in a survey of 27,000 transgender individuals, 40% reported a suicide attempt (a rate nine times higher than the general population.”  Id. at 523 (citing Sandy E. James et al., Nat’l Center for Transgender Equality, Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey 2014 (2016).)  The Third Circuit further noted that exclusionary policies prohibiting a transgender individual’s access to facilities consistent with gender identity “exacerbate the rise of ‘anxiety and depression, low self-esteem, engaging in self-injurious behaviors, suicide, substance use, homelessness, and eating disorders among other adverse outcomes.’”  Id. at 523 (citing Br. for Amici Curiae American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Association, et. al., 18).  The Third Circuit agreed that the District’s Equal Access Policy, in addition to protecting transgender students, advances the interest of fostering an overall environment of inclusivity, acceptance, and tolerance that benefits all students. 

With regard to balancing the privacy interests of all students, the Third Circuit noted that the District provided single-user accommodations, which were accessible to everyone.  These single use options appropriately addressed the interests of those students who were uncomfortable disrobing in front of other students.  The Third Circuit rejected the Plaintiffs’/Appellants’ argument that the District should adopt a policy compelling transgender students to use individual restrooms if they chose not to use restrooms aligned with their sex assigned at birth as an argument undermined the state’s compelling interest.  The Third Circuit explained, “Adopting the appellants’ position would very publicly brand all transgender students with a scarlet ‘T,’ and they should not have to endure that as the price of attending their public school.” Id. at 530.  Ultimately, the Third Circuit agreed with the district court that that Plaintiffs’/Appellants’ were “unlikely to succeed in establishing their right to privacy based on a transgender student potentially viewing them in a state of undress in a locker room or restroom.” Id. at 530-531.

Rights Under Title IX

The Plaintiffs/Appellants also argued that the District’s Equal Access Policy violated Title IX.  The Third Circuit affirmed the district court’s rejection of this argument because the Equal Access Policy treated all students equally irrespective of sex.  Their challenge under Title IX was rejected on the additional basis that the elements of a “hostile environment harassment” claim were not met.  

With regard to the hostile harassment environment claim, the Third Circuit noted that a plaintiff must establish harassment so severe, pervasive, or objectively offensive that it effectively denies his/her access to the institution’s educational resources and opportunities.  Second, the Third Circuit stated the alleged harassment must be related to the plaintiff’s sex.  The Third Circuit agreed with the district court’s finding that the Plaintiffs’/Appellants “had not met their burden of establishing that the mere presence of transgender students in the bathrooms and locker rooms constitutes sexual harassment.”  Id. at 535.  The Court also found that the Plaintiffs’/Appellants’ claim failed because the alleged harassment could not be based on their sex given that the District’s Equal Access Policy applied uniformly to all students irrespective of their sex.  Thus, even if harassment did occur, it would not be a Title IX violation since such a claim requires a showing of disparate treatment based on sex.

Conclusion

California school districts must ensure that policies and practices are in place to ensure that all students, including transgender students, are able to learn in a safe educational environment, free from discrimination and harassment.  California prohibits discrimination based on sex, gender identity, and gender expression.  California law also makes clear that school districts must allow students to use facilities, such as restrooms and locker rooms, consistent with their gender identity. School districts should be mindful to comply with these state legal obligations even though the scope and breadth of the rights afforded to transgender students under federal law are ever-changing.

To address issues of privacy for all students, school districts may consider establishing single-user facilities, enhancing privacy features within existing facilities (i.e., individual shower stalls), and implementing other privacy measures that accommodate the expressed needs of students on a case-by-case basis.  With the ultimate goal of creating a safe and inclusive educational environment for all students, school districts should also ensure that:

  • Their Title IX Coordinator’s name and contact information are known to the greater school community using different means of communication, i.e., board policies, district websites, orientation packets, student/parent handbooks, etc.;
  • All District personnel are trained on anti-discrimination and anti-harassment board policies and administrative regulations, including those specific to the interests of transgender students; and
  • All District parents, including Limited English Proficient parents, and all students are informed about the District’s anti-discrimination and harassment complaint process.

While transgender students are protected under federal law from sex discrimination and sexual harassment as a general matter, the legal landscape with regard to their rights to access facilities consistent with their gender identity is ever-changing under federal law, specifically Title IX.  However, the Supreme Court’s decision not to review an appeal from the Third Circuit in Boyertown does signal that policies that are supportive of transgender students’ access to facilities do not necessarily violate the protections afforded to other students under Title IX or the constitutional right to bodily privacy.

With the goal of ensuring a safe educational and work environment on campuses throughout California, AALRR offers experienced and exceptional counsel to educational institutions confronting complex matters involving civil rights compliance under state and federal anti-discrimination laws, including compliance with Title IX.  If you have questions or seek counsel regarding civil rights compliance, please contact one of the authors of this EdLawConnect Blog.

On June 3, 2019, the United States Supreme Court issued a rare unanimous decision authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in Fort Bend County, Texas v. Davis (2019) — S.Ct. —, 2019 WL 2331306.  The Court held the charge-filing requirements specified in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are not jurisdictional.  If a requirement is jurisdictional, courts may not adjudicate a claim unless the requirement has been met.  Challenges to a court’s subject-matter jurisdiction may be raised by a defendant at any time during litigation.  On the other hand, if a claim-filing requirement is simply a procedural prerequisite to filing a lawsuit, a defendant employer must timely object based on the plaintiff’s failure to comply, or forfeit the objection. 

The Education Code currently provides that students enrolled in grades K through 3 may not be suspended pursuant to Education Code 48900(k).  Furthermore, no student regardless of grade level may be recommended for expulsion based on a violation of that provision.  Senate Bill (SB) 419, introduced by Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) on February 21, 2019, would expand the existing ban on suspensions for violations of 48900(k) to students enrolled in grades 4 through 8.  In addition, the ban would also extend to students enrolled in grades 9 through 12, but this provision is scheduled to sunset on January 1, 2025.  The proposed bill also applies the ban to charter schools.

A federal district court in Massachusetts recently ruled against Harvard University in an ongoing lawsuit filed on behalf of disabled individuals challenging the accessibility of online video content on the university’s websites. (National Association of the Deaf v. Harvard University (D. Mass. March 28, 2019) 2019 WL 1409302, No. 3:15-cv-30023-KAR.) On the same day, the court issued a similar ruling in a companion lawsuit against the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, relying on the rationale from the Harvard University decision. (National Association of the Deaf v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (D. Mass. March 28, 2019) 2019 WL 1409301, No. 3:15-cv-30024-KAR.)

Categories: School District

Spend any amount of time in a middle school or high school classroom across California, and you will witness firsthand the impact of smartphones on students’ education. In March, the results of one middle school teacher’s experiment went viral. Mary Garza encouraged students to leave their phones on, and turned up loud, during a single class period. The students then tallied each time they received a notification. In one class period, her students received over 300 text messages. The class also tallied Instagram alerts, emails, and other phone alerts. Her students received 32 phone calls during one class period on a typical school day. Overall, instruction was interrupted over 1,000 times in one period.

As the #MeToo Movement placed a glaring spotlight on the continuing problem of sexual harassment in the workplace, outgoing California Governor Jerry Brown signed several bills aimed at curbing harassment. All of them impact California employers, both public and private.

Ridesharing services, such as Uber and Lyft, continue to grow in popularity and use. The services are cost-effective, convenient, and require no exchange of cash. A ride can be ordered remotely for someone else. It is no surprise, then, that parents are turning to such services as a means to transport their children to and from school and various extra-curricular activities. Parents order a ride using a mobile app and the driver picks up and transports the child to the preset destination. Except for specialty services aimed at transporting minors (e.g., HopSkipDrive), most ridesharing services, including Uber and Lyft, have policies prohibiting drivers from transporting minors without an adult present. Nevertheless, in a ratings-driven work environment, ridesharing drivers might disregard such policies to avoid a negative rating.

This summer, Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 2282, which resolves ambiguities created by earlier pay equity legislation in AB 1676 (2016) and AB 168 (2017). As you may recall, AB 168 prohibits questions about salary history on employment applications and during interviews. The law also requires employers to provide a pay scale to applicants on demand.  

Earlier this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) launched an investigation to determine whether the popular vaporizer/e-cigarette company Juul intentionally marketed its devices to young people. As part of that inquiry, the FDA ordered Juul to produce the company’s research and marketing documents, including information on focus groups and toxicology reports. The attorney general of Massachusetts is also conducting an investigation of the company to review Juul’s efforts to audit its own website and other online retailers that sell its products to determine how effective they are at preventing minors from accessing Juul devices.

Title 5 of the California Code of Regulations, section 55220 has long provided community college districts with immunity from claims for injuries sustained on field trips and excursions, including travel related to interscholastic athletic events.  While California courts have recognized that the immunity provision allows districts to enhance the educational experience by reducing exposure to injury claims and thereby lessening costs (Sanchez v. San Diego County Office of Education (2010) 182 Cal.App.4th 1580, 1584), a California Court of Appeal recently clarified the extent of this protection.

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