Mississippi school chief shelves transgender bathroom policy

AP News
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Posted: May 18, 2016 1:10 PM

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Under fire from the governor and many Republican legislators, the Mississippi Department of Education now says it won't follow new federal guidance on use of bathrooms and locker rooms by transgender students.

State Superintendent Carey Wright made the announcement Wednesday morning in a brief statement, saying the department would "follow the lead of state leadership" and take no action until the state Board of Education could discuss the situation. The move comes as Republicans in a number of other states have opposed the guidance, with some seeking to join legal challenges.

Mississippi education officials had said Friday they would follow the guidance by federal authorities calling for transgender students to be treated consistently with their gender identity. They cited a need for a "safe and caring school environment."

State Board of Education Chairman John Kelly of Gulfport said that board will have a special meeting within the next two weeks to discuss the issue.

"Dr. Wright and I had a general discussion, but it was her decision to reverse this," Kelly said. He described his own position on Wright's action as "not important."

Board member Johnny Franklin of Bolton said the nine board members have been discussing Wright's position among themselves. Franklin said he'd gotten more than 10 phone calls opposing Wright's previous position.

"I'm pleased that she has released the statement that she has," Franklin said of the reversal.

Elsewhere, Georgia's governor on Tuesday ordered his state's superintendent to provide guidance to create a uniform response across the state to "this federal overreach." South Carolina's governor and state attorney general said they oppose the guidance, but the state superintendent has said she's monitoring it.

The move in Mississippi came as opposition to Wright's earlier announcement that she would comply turned into a landslide. Wednesday, 27 Republican state senators among the GOP's 32-member supermajority sent a letter to Wright and the Board of Education calling for "swift and decisive action on this urgent matter."

"The federal government is, in effect, trying to blackmail our state by implying that funding for public schools will be withheld should we continue to recognize biological sex when setting safety and privacy policies for our schools," the senators wrote. "Dr. Wright made the decision to usurp the board's authority and unilaterally issue the policy decision to acquiesce to the illegal demands of the federal government. For this, the superintendent must be held accountable."

That followed a letter Tuesday by 11 Republican House members asking Wright to reverse the department's position. The group, including five members of the House Education Committee, told Wright that if she didn't reverse herself, she should resign.

"The policy of allowing boys or men into bathrooms and locker rooms with girls poses a threat to the safety and well-being of every school-aged girl in this state," they wrote.

Gov. Phil Bryant had called for Mississippi to defy "federal coercion" and some Republican lawmakers called for Wright to reverse her position.

"As I said last week, the Mississippi Department of Education should disregard the Obama administration's so-called guidance regarding public schools' bathroom policies. Mississippi's school children should not be forced to participate in the president's social experiment," the governor said in a statement Tuesday. However, he did not answer when asked by The Associated Press if he thought Wright should resign.

As part of a larger law to allow religious groups and some private businesses to deny services to gay and transgender people or unmarried parents, Mississippi lawmakers declared that they protect the belief that people have an "immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth." While House bill 1523, which takes effect July 1, allows people to set bathroom and other policies based on that belief for students, it doesn't require it. Two groups have filed federal court challenges to the law.

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