DeVos investigates whether school transgender bathroom policy led to sexual assault
The Trump administration is investigating whether a Georgia school district’s policy allowing transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice led to the sexual assault of a 5-year-old girl.
The investigation in Decatur, Ga., which opened last month, signals a major development in Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ controversial policies on transgender bathroom access in schools and her handling of civil rights enforcement for transgender students.
The complaint alleges the girl was assaulted in the girl‘s bathroom at Oakhurst Elementary School by a student who identified as “gender fluid.” The complaint was filed in May with help from the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian group that has filed many lawsuits challenging school district transgender bathroom policies nationwide.
The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights said in a Sept. 14 letter that it would investigate the complaint, which means it will consider whether a student was assaulted because Decatur City School District allows transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice.
Specifically, the agency’s civil rights office says it will investigate whether the district appropriately handled the report of the alleged sexual assault and whether the district’s bathroom policy contributed to the “creation of a hostile environment for the student and other girls.”
Education Department spokesman Nate Bailey confirmed the investigation.
“We do not comment on pending investigations — but to be clear, the investigation focuses on the school’s response to a report of sexual assault and the examination of any and all factors that may have contributed to a hostile environment,” he said in an email.
The mother of the girl in the complaint is identified as Pascha Thomas. The girl is identified as “N.T.” and the other child is not identified.
The investigation comes after the Trump administration rescinded an Obama-era directive in February 2017 that said Title IX — federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in federally funded education programs — also protects the right of transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice. The Education and Justice departments said at the time the directive had “given rise to significant litigation” and required further study.
Since then, the Trump administration has stopped investigating civil rights complaints filed by transgender students over bathroom access and has dismissed some of those complaints.
The complaint filed in Georgia over Decatur City School District‘s bathroom policy reflects the long-held conservative belief that such bathroom policies violate student privacy and make students less safe. Superintendent David Dude didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Courtney Burnett, a spokeswoman for the school district, said in an email, “City Schools of Decatur is committed to supporting all students. We are aware of the unfounded allegations made by the Alliance Defending Freedom. We fully disagree with their characterization of the situation and are addressing it with the Office of Civil Rights. As this is a pending legal matter, we have no further comment at this time.“
The Alliance Defending Freedom announced the Education Department’s involvement on Wednesday.
“This situation was both deeply tragic and avoidable,” said ADF Legal Counsel Christiana Holcomb in a statement. “Schools have a duty to protect the privacy and safety of all students and Decatur Schools clearly failed this young girl. The current approach that many schools are taking of passing these transgender bathroom policies isn’t working; they fail to provide basic privacy or ensure the safety of all students.”
LGBT advocacy groups have said most transgender students are required to use bathrooms that don’t match their gender identity and, as a result, suffer serious physical and emotional health consequences.
For example, the group GLSEN notes that transgender students often avoid using bathrooms because they feel unsafe or uncomfortable. They might not eat or drink regularly, or could develop a medical issue from not using the bathroom, like a urinary tract infection.