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What Betsy DeVos Can Do for Trans Youth

What Betsy DeVos Can Do for Trans Youth

The attorney general is hell-bent on making life hard for transgender students, but the education secretary -- and the president -- need not abide, writes Congresswoman Susan Davis. 

Civil rights are at the heart of having access to a quality education. In fact, in his address before a joint session of Congress President Donald J. Trump said: "Education is the civil rights issue of our time."

This was just six days after he ordered the Department of Justice and the Department of Education to rescind protections for trans students.

From desegregation to Title IX, the federal government has a responsibility to protect the rights of all students. President Barack Obama was keeping with this responsibility in 2016 when he offered guidance to schools on guaranteeing the rights of trans students. The guidance issued by the Obama administration sent a powerful message of acceptance.

Conversely, the elimination of this guidance by the Trump administration clarifying the scope of Title IX protections sends a dangerous message to trans students.

As ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education, I led committee Democrats in a letter to the education secretary asking her to take concrete steps to protect trans students. It was heartening to see that she resisted this change, even taking her concerns to the president. However, Attorney General Jeff Sessions finally convinced the president to roll back these protections for trans students.

Enacted in 1972, the Education Amendments included a provision commonly known as Title IX, which expressly prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal assistance. When most people hear of Title IX, they usually think sports. The success of our women's national soccer team is certainly a testament to how Title IX has a made difference.

Ultimately, Title IX is about prohibiting discrimination and it went beyond sports, addressing the lack of opportunity in such areas as math and science.

Prior to Title IX, many medical schools put a five percent quota on admitting women to their institutions. After Title IX, that percentage jumped to 30 percent. Today that number is 49.6 percent.

It is also more than opportunity. A sense of acceptance plays a powerful role in motivating people to strive for their dreams. We know that students learn best when they feel supported and protected at school. We should be doing everything we can to help young people succeed and thrive. Students do their best in school and in life when they feel safe and respected.

At the opposite end of that spectrum, we know that many trans students are bullied in schools across our country every day. Stigmatizing trans students by policing what public facilities they can use sends a message of non-acceptance. When they feel marginalized and aren't able to use basic public facilities, they are more likely to turn away from their studies, and towards depression.

According to a study conducted by the National Center of Transgender Equality, 54 percent of trans students surveyed reported being verbally harassed and 24 percent reported being physically attacked. In fact, the study found that 17 percent of trans students were so badly mistreated that they left their schools altogether.

Given the alarming impact of these statistics on the quality of life and education for trans students, the department must clarify the scope of its responsibility to protect these students. The department must also detail what its Title IX responsibilities are in the case of LGBT students.

The guidance offered by President Obama was consistent with past guidance by the departments of education and judiciary. Two letters laid out direction that Title IX protection applied to gender-based harassment of trans students and sexual assault.

Secretary DeVos would do well to convene groups of state and district leaders to discuss best practices for supporting trans students. These conversations could be useful in providing resources for school employees that detail how they can create inclusive environment. The department and other leaders could highlight examples of schools that implement these best practices effectively.

We should be setting an example for all of our nation's children by treating trans kids with the respect and compassion they deserve. If Trump truly believes that education is the civil rights issue of our time, then he has an opportunity show it by ensuring protections for trans students across our land. He should match his rhetoric with action.

SUSAN DAVIS represents California's 53rd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. She is a senior member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

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Rep. Susan Davis