[gdlr_notification icon=”fa-flag” type=”color-background” background=”#ffcc20″ color=”#000000″]This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune[/gdlr_notification]
*Editor’s note: This story has been updated throughout.
FORT WORTH — Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick renewed his call Wednesday for the Fort Worth schools superintendent to resign after approving a bathroom policy to accommodate transgender students. But supporters of Superintendent Kent Scribner and the policy called Patrick a bully exploiting “fake outrage” to score political points.
After traveling to Fort Worth for a press conference, Patrick said Scribner had overstepped his role as CEO of the state’s sixth-largest school district.
“He’s not focused on the real issue,” Patrick said at the Fort Worth schools administration building, where dozens of transgender advocates and protesters gathered ahead of a school board meeting.
Patrick said Scribner should focus on improving the district’s failing schools, not “social engineering.”
“This policy does nothing to improve a student’s chances of graduating,” he said.
In a pre-emptive press conference held before Patrick spoke, supporters of the district’s transgender policy also lobbed accusations of misplaced priorities, accusing Patrick of making something out of nothing. They derided Patrick for what they described as his “fake outrage,” calling the Republican a shameless bully.
“A bully like Dan Patrick can’t go unchallenged. He is wrong,” said Joel Burns, an openly gay former Fort Worth councilman. “He’s here to do harm for his own political gain.”
Burns, also an anti-bullying advocate, spoke in advance of a Fort Worth school board meeting, where the new guidelines were not on the agenda but were expected to come up during public comment.
“There is no news here,” said Steve Rudner, chairman of Equality Texas, who joined Burns at the news conference. “The only news here is that the lieutenant governor has decided to pick on an already bullied group of kids. It’s shameful and it’s despicable.”
The Fort Worth Independent School District superintendent said earlier Tuesday he will not heed Patrick’s request for his resignation over the district’s bathroom guidelines for transgender students.
Patrick on Monday called for Scribner to resign over a policy the superintendent announced last month that directs district employees to “acknowledge the gender identity that each student consistently and uniformly asserts,” allowing them to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity.
“I’m proud of these guidelines,” Scribner told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram editorial board Tuesday. “I think they provide educators with the ability to make all students more comfortable and confident in a learning environment.”
Patrick said the policy puts students in danger and Scribner should not have acted without “any discussion with parents, board members, principals, and other community leaders.”
“Campus safety should be of paramount concern for anyone in his position,” Patrick said in a statement Monday. “Every parent, especially those of young girls, should be outraged.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton told Fort Worth ISD Board President Jacinto “Cinto” Ramos Tuesday that he has legal concerns with the policy.
“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 federal law,” Paxton told Ramos in a letter. “I sincerely hope you will assess these deficiencies in the transgender policy and more as the board deliberates.”
When asked about Scribner’s comments, district spokesman Clint Bond confirmed the superintendent’s intentions to stay in his post. Bond also provided a statement from Ramos.
“Rest assured, the safety of ALL children is our highest priority on the Board,” Ramos said in the statement. “We are completely capable of handling this in Fort Worth. We are applying the existing policy to make sure ALL children feel safe at school. We are here to look out for ALL children; not some, not most, but ALL children.”
Patrick’s call for Scribner’s resignation comes during an increasingly tense battle over rights of transgender people across the country. North Carolina and the U.S. Department of Justice sparred over the state’s House Bill 2, which would prohibit people from using public restrooms that do not align with their biological sex. Patrick and other conservative leaders have pledged to pursue a similar law during next year’s legislative session in Texas.
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Opponents and supporters of the new guidelines swamped the school board meeting; conservative groups have sent emails this week urging concerned parents and citizens to attend.
Scribner announced the bathroom policy at the school board’s April 19 meeting, where there was no related discussion, according to a Star-Telegram report. The board was not asked to vote on the policy because it is an “administrative guideline,” which is a policy that superintendents can implement without official board approval.
“These new guidelines would threaten the safety and privacy of children in all Fort Worth schools by opening little girl’s bathrooms and locker rooms to boys,” conservative group Texas Values said in a press release Monday urging opponents to attend the board meeting. “Further, the guidelines were not debated, discussed or voted on at any board meetings.”
Patrick’s call for Scribner’s resignation also sparked comment from Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa, who said Patrick should be focusing on more pressing education issues.
“Last I checked our children are stuck in overcrowded classrooms, the school finance system is broken, the STAAR test is a mess, pre-k needs to be expanded statewide, and our teachers need a raise, but Tea Party Lt. Gov. Patrick has nothing better to do than police the potties,” Hinojosa said in a statement.
The Fort Worth school district — the sixth-largest in the state — appears to be a pioneer among the state’s bigger, urban school districts in adopting a transgender bathroom policy.
At least four of the five Texas school districts that enrolled more students than Fort Worth last school year don’t have specific rules on the books dictating how to handle bathroom use by transgender students, according to spokespeople in the Dallas, Cy-Fair, Northside and Austin districts. (A spokesman for the Houston Independent School District, the largest in the state, did not immediately respond to a request for information on its rules.)
Nicole Ray, a spokeswoman for the Cy-Fair school district, the state’s third-largest, said the district handles the issue on a case-by-case basis because “it may not be the same with every child.”
“We try to work with them individually to meet their needs and what they’re comfortable with and we find that’s really been the best way to find that everyone’s needs are met,” she said.
El Paso Superintendent Juan Cabrera said he began exploring the possibility of adopting such a policy last summer, when he directed school district lawyers to study current guidelines. For now, he said the district follows certain local and federal guidelines that say schools should accommodate the bathroom needs of transgender students however possible.
“We’re a very progressive city and progressive school district and we want to afford all of our children every right and accommodation that they deserve,” he said.
Asked if he would seek board approval for such a policy, Cabrera said it depends.
If it’s a matter of student safety, “I absolutely have the right to implement administrative regulations to make sure they all feel safe,” he said. “I’m not going to subject myself to political will if I think safety of the children” is at stake.
If it’s a matter of building gender-neutral restrooms or anything that would cost money or a lot of time, he said he would seek board approval.
The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
[gdlr_notification icon=”fa-camera” type=”color-background” background=”#999999″ color=”#ffffff”]Top image photo credit: Protesters at a press conference held by Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who again called on Fort Worth Independent School District Superintendent Kent Scribner to resign over the district’s bathroom guidelines for transgender students. / photo credit: Laura Buckman / Texas Tribune[/gdlr_notification]