A Texas advocacy group says state leaders are asking the Fort Worth Independent School District to violate federal law by forcing transgender students to use certain restrooms, and that may put billions of dollars in federal education dollars awarded to Texas at risk.
Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton on Tuesday joined Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in condemning Texas' sixth-largest school district over new guidelines put in place by Fort Worth ISD Superintendent Kent Scribner.
Scribner announced rules last month allowing transgender students access to single-stall restrooms. Alternatively, they'll be allowed to use restrooms when other students aren't around.
Scribner didn't go through the school board, which Paxton and Patrick suggest violates state law. Both also questioned whether the district can withhold information from parents about a transgender student.
After learning of the guidelines Patrick called for Scribner's resignation, but the superintendent said he isn't going anywhere.
But the fight is only beginning. During a Fort Worth ISD school board meeting Tuesday, hundreds came to voice their support and opposition to the guidelines.
"It's being imposed on us to have bathrooms transgender. It's very black and white. Do you want a girl coming into your bathroom? Do you want a boy coming into your bathroom? Emphatically, it's a no," said parent, Jane Lacey.
The issue of transgender bathrooms was not even on the board's agenda, however, the overwhelming response to the guidelines made it the focus of the public comment period.
"I am here tonight because I am a transgender student at Carter," said Kylar Maddox.
At 17, Maddox began publicly identifying as a male a couple years ago. But at school, he still chooses to use a private restroom in the nurse's office at school to avoid any contention.
"If this was in place earlier than I would not have to be outed," Maddox said. "And I could just go as a normal student because I am a normal student."
Prior to Tuesday's meeting, Equality Texas, an advocacy group for the LGBT community in Texas, and former Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns, discussed the positions held by state leaders and what may happen if the district were to comply while commending the FWISD for issuing guidelines consistent with federal law.
"The lieutenant governor's proposal would cause Texas to violate federal law, as defined recently by the 4th circuit, and yesterday by our nation's attorney general, and would put our school funding, $6 billion a year, at risk," said Steve Rudner, chairman of the board, Equity Texas. "It would ultimately cause for our state the economic chaos now being suffered by the state of North Carolina. The lieutenant governor's demands that we should violate federal law are not only dangerous and economically risky, but they also demonize transgender students, many of whom are forced to drop out of school because of the constant bullying and aggression they face."
The 4th circuit court recently sided with the U.S. Education Department who said transgender students should be allowed to use bathrooms that match their gender identities instead of being forced to use ones that match the sex designated on their birth certificate. According to the DOE, requiring transgender students to use facilities that match their birth sex is sex discrimination - a violation of Title IX which could impact federal funding.
Patrick, however, said Scribner has placed his own personal agenda ahead of students by adopting transgender student guidelines without going through the school board.
In a statement released Monday afternoon, Patrick said:
"After less than a year as superintendent, Dr. Scribner has lost his focus and thereby his ability to lead the Fort Worth ISD. He has placed his own personal political agenda ahead of the more than 86,000 students attending 146 schools in the district by unilaterally adopting 'Transgender Student Guidelines.' Without any discussion with parents, board members, principals, and other community leaders, Dr. Scribner’s unilateral action, underscores this lack of fitness to hold his position as superintendent. Campus safety should be of paramount concern for anyone in his position. Every parent, especially those of young girls, should be outraged. The State of Texas has an affirmative responsibility to provide a safe environment in the schools where attendance is compulsory. While this may be an example of the need for the Legislature to pass a meaningful School Choice Bill, we must not allow the actions of Dr. Scribner to go unnoticed or unanswered. I call upon the parents within the Fort Worth ISD to take immediate steps to repeal this stealthy scheme and remove Dr. Scribner from his post."
Patrick also spoke before the Fort Worth ISD School Board meeting and said he supports a policy that prevents harassment and bullying but not one that gives special treatment to transgender students or forces other students to stand up say they aren't comfortable sharing restrooms with transgender students.
"I believe in protecting every student. If there is a transgender student who feels like they're being harassed and bullied we have laws in place to take care of that. But you don't turn the 78,000 other students on their head and say we're switching everything for you and now you're the one who has to say I don't want to be a part of this," Patrick said.
Social engineering, Patrick said, is not the responsibility of the superintendent. He said if the guidelines were allowed to remain in place it could put the public school system on a path toward obsolescence.
"If this country goes down the path of social engineering in our schools and takes their focus off of the real core mission, I believe you're going to see the end of the public school system as we know it because more people will home school, more people will try to go to private schools. More people will attend charter schools. This is not what parents signed up for," Patrick said.
The lieutenant governor again called for the superintendent's resignation Tuesday, saying the language in the guideline is non-specific, poorly written and would likely end up being challenged in court.
"This guideline, by the way, is ripe for lawsuits every which way but Sunday. This is poorly written, poorly advised and should have never been put upon the people," Patrick said. "You know what? If the superintendent wants to pull it down, maybe he's learned from his mistakes. That would be a good thing. But if he's going to insist, as he has so far, of pushing this through, again, he's not doing the job that I believe the parents expect him to do and that's educating their kids and I think he should resign."
"The lieutenant governor loves to stir up hatred for political purposes," Rudner said before Patrick's remarks. "The lieutenant governor should get out of people's bathrooms and he should get out of school board meetings where he doesn't belong. Instead he should pay some attention to the state's broken foster care system, school funding and other important state issues."
A district official responded by saying the school board and the district had been working on a more inclusive policy since 2014 and drafted a new set of guidelines last summer. The official said Scribner told the school board he signed those guidelines and that guidelines do not require a vote by the school board.
"We have enormous confidence in Superintendent Kent P. Scribner, his team and our Board," school board president Jacinto Ramos, Jr. said in a statement. "We are focused on creating a strong, safe, and productive learning environment for ALL students."
Tuesday, Paxton directed a prepared statement at Ramos saying he had concern the policy violates the Texas Education Code and that it should have been adopted by the school board.
"I have strong concern that this policy violates provisions in the Texas Education Code that give parents an unequivocal right to information regarding their children and is motivated by a misguided view of Title IX," Paxton wrote. Read that letter here.
Zed Pent, a parent of a child in the district, said he represents several organizations that oppose the guidelines, which require school personnel to acknowledge students by the gender with which they identify rather than the one on their birth certificates.
"This is all about process, and the fact that this was not put to a vote. We live in a democracy and the citizens that put the board members in place should have had a say," said Pent.
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price issued a statement of support for Scribner late Tuesday afternoon, saying she trusted the superintendent and school board would listen to the citizens at Tuesday night's meeting.
“Over the past 24 hours, we have seen a large volume of commentary and input from inside and outside our community on the recent implementation of guidelines pertaining to transgendered students in Fort Worth ISD. While I respect the passion on this particular issue and drastically differing opinions, I strongly believe this is a local issue that needs to be focused on the safety, inclusion and education of all 86,000 FWISD students. I trust our school board and Dr. Scribner will listen closely to the citizens of Fort Worth at tonight’s board meeting, and bring clarity and focus back to the education of Fort Worth’s future leaders.” -- Betsy Price
The guidelines also state the campus counselor will be a "designated ally" for transgender students. They allow the counselor to decide whether parents should be notified about a students' transition out of the "health, well-being and safety of the transitioning student."
The push back from Texas Republicans comes as the U.S. Justice Department sues over a North Carolina law restricting transgender bathroom access to the sex designated on their birth certificate.
Patrick told NBC 5 last month that he would support similar legislation in Texas.
NBC 5's Meredith Yeomans, Holley Ford & Caroline Connolly contributed to this report.