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Oklahoma’s top education official has requested a binding attorney general’s opinion on school bathroom access as a controversy surrounding policies accommodating transgender students continues to develop.
State schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister asked on Saturday that Attorney General John O’Connor determine whether school districts have the authority to decide their own policies for restroom use.
The announcement follows requests from Stillwater Public Schools and Gov. Kevin Stitt’s education secretary, Ryan Walters, for legal guidance on bathroom protocols affecting transgender students.
O’Connor already weighed in to a certain degree in an April 8 letter to the Stillwater school district. He said there is no legal precedent in Oklahoma that requires schools to open restrooms and locker rooms to students born of the opposite sex.
Policy allows students to use bathroom that matches gender identity
Stillwater schools have come under fire in recent weeks for a protocol allowing students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity.
The policy has existed for six years in Stillwater schools with no reported incidents of misbehavior by transgender students, the school district has said.
Walters, who called the policy a product of left-wing extremism, argued bathroom access should be limited strictly to students’ biological sex. He urged the Oklahoma State Board of Education to issue “crystal clear guidance” saying so.
Hofmeister declining to issue a directive is a sign she has “gone woke,” Walters said.
“This is well within the (education) department’s purview,” he said. “For years Hofmeister has masqueraded as a Republican, but in reality she is no better than the worst bureaucrat or politician. She refuses to lead and refuses to address the concerns around the radical rules in Stillwater.”
Hofmeister switched parties this year and is now a Democratic candidate for governor.
Stillwater also asked the state Board of Education to get involved. The district’s school board voted unanimously April 18 to encourage state board members to pass emergency rules that would create legally binding regulations on the matter.
The Stillwater board also asked that the governor approve the state Board of Education’s rules.
Stillwater board members said they would not change the bathroom policy unless the state left the school district “no choice but to alter its practices.”
Hofmeister asks attorney general to weigh in as matter is not an emergency
The school district’s request doesn’t meet the definition of an emergency, Hofmeister said in a news release. Seeking an opinion from the attorney general is the proper course of action rather than developing emergency rules, she said.
Hofmeister asked O’Connor whether school bathroom policies are ultimately a local decision by individual school districts. Her request letter also questions whether any law requires public schools to block students from using the restroom that aligns with their gender identity.
The U.S. Department of Education clarified last year that discrimination on the basis of gender identity is prohibited under federal Title IX protections.
Guidance from the Biden Administration doesn’t dictate school policy on bathroom access, O’Connor wrote in his April 8 letter to Stillwater schools.
“The President can only enforce the law rather than create it, and my office (and many others) are pushing back against this attempted and lawless overreach,” O’Connor wrote.
LGBTQ+ advocates argued the controversy has been manufactured for political reasons. Freedom Oklahoma, a nonprofit supporting equal treatment for LGBTQ+ individuals, noted Walters began criticizing Stillwater’s policy shortly before filing to run for state office.
Walters, a Republican, is campaigning to succeed Hofmeister as state schools superintendent.
“Trans girls are girls,” the organization wrote in an April 8 social media post. “The courts have clarified again and again and again that neither schools nor states can advance policies that marginalize and target bathroom access for trans kids.
“The timing of this attack, just before filing for elected office begins, reminds us of the intentions at play here. And frankly, this effort, at any time, is inexcusable.”
Appellate court rulings across the country have confirmed transgender students’ rights are ensured under Title IX, Hofmeister said.
“The answers to these questions will not only provide the crystal-clear guidance sought and will come in the form of a binding opinion on those in Oklahoma who have historically implemented and enforced Title IX and related laws on these matters,” she wrote in her request letter.
Reporter Nuria Martinez-Keel covers K-12 and higher education throughout the state of Oklahoma. Have a story idea for Nuria? She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @NuriaMKeel. Support Nuria’s work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at subscribe.oklahoman.com.