Fort Worth

Transgender debate: Fort Worth schools respond to Patrick, Paxton

A letter from the school district to the state attorney general says that Superintendent Kent Scribner did not violate state law by implementing guidelines for transgender students.
A letter from the school district to the state attorney general says that Superintendent Kent Scribner did not violate state law by implementing guidelines for transgender students. Star-Telegram archives

Superintendent Kent Scribner followed state education laws when he approved transgender student guidelines, according to a Fort Worth school district letter sent to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton this week.

The guidelines have been widely criticized by some Texas politicians and Fort Worth residents who are concerned that they create a dangerous environment in which boys can access girls bathrooms and that Scribner overstepped his bounds as a superintendent.

“No policy as significant as this should ever be created and put to action unilaterally without consultation with parents and superintendent’s elected bosses,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said last month. “A school district is not a monarchy and Scribner is not a king.”

The school district letter, written by attorney Valerie Carrillo, responds to Patrick’s request for Paxton to issue a legal opinion on whether Scribner violated stated education laws.

Two questions raised by Patrick are addressed in the letter:

Does the superintendent’s policy violate the education code or any other law in its effort to keep student information from parents?

Did the superintendent have the authority to unilaterally adopt this policy without adoption by the school board vote and without public comment?

On the first question, the district said it was not trying to keep student information from parents. Instead, it has a tradition of working with parents and it intends to continue doing so while complying with state and federal laws.

Many critics of the guidelines have questioned wording that outlines when it is not appropriate for school district staff to tell parents that their child is transgender.

“The district intends to clarify this provision of the guidelines accordingly and may have other changes after receiving parental and community input,” the letter states.

On the second question, the letter explains how the superintendent was following state law when he approved the guidelines as an administrative regulation aimed at implementing a policy approved in 2011.

“In fact, this authority is routinely exercised by superintendents across the state in implementing their respective school board policies,” the letter states.

That interpretation of Texas school laws is supported in another letter sent to Paxton by the Texas Association of School Boards Legal Assistance Fund.

“We write because Texas law specifically charges public school superintendents with the establishment of administrative regulation, including ‘guidelines,’ and thousands of such regulations are in place around the state,” states the letter signed by Joy Baskin, TASB’s director of legal services. “We write to provide background about this statewide reality and to ask that your opinion not cast into doubt the legality of the thousands of unrelated administrative regulations and guidelines currently guiding operations in the school districts of Texas.”

While administrative guidelines are public record, TASB notes that school districts aren’t required to conduct public hearings before establishing guidelines.

Clarifying the guidelines

Scribner announced the implementation of Fort Worth’s transgender guidelines on April 26.

The guidelines establish protection for transgender and other students, including a section that provides students access to a bathroom where they “must feel comfortable and safe.”

In the political firestorm that followed, Patrick said Scribner should resign or be fired, board meetings were packed with concerned citizens — on both sides of the issue — and President Obama issued a federal directive that allows transgender students to use restrooms that match their gender identity.

Texas and other states later sued the federal government over Obama’s guidelines.

Earlier this month, the Fort Worth district held six public forums to collect comments and information that will be used by officials and an advisory committee to clarify the guidelines by the beginning of the 2016-17 school year. The advisory committee will include residents and leaders from the faith, civic and LGBT communities.

At Tuesday’s school board meeting, trustee Ann Sutherland said she wants an amendment to the transgender guidelines made by the July 17 meeting.

Though it does not require board approval, she wants trustees to vote on the issue.

“I think it is important that we finish the review of our transgender administrative regulations,” Sutherland said. “I think it is important that it come as close as possible to the federal regulation and I believe we need to vote on whether or not to adopt it.”

Public continues to weigh in

The school district’s transgender guidelines continued to draw people to the public comment podium at Tuesday’s board meeting. Critics questioned the guidelines on moral and legal grounds and supporters said they protect the civil rights of transgender students.

Most of the speakers were critical of the guidelines.

“It is outside Christian beliefs,” said Hilda Buenrostro, whose children attend schools in the Eagle Mountain-Saginaw school district in northwest Tarrant County. “I am a mother and I am worried about my children’s safety.”

Buenrostro said that even though her children attend a different school district, she is worried the guidelines will be implemented in surrounding school districts.

Two people spoke in favor of the guidelines, saying it’s a civil rights issue and alluding to how some of the criticism fosters discrimination.

“Homophobia and transphobia, no matter how it is couched, can become lethal,” said David Mack Henderson, president of Fairness Fort Worth, who also referred to the Orlando victims shot at a gay night club this week.

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Diane A. Smith: 817-390-7675, @dianeasmith1