Student bullied in school bathroom after Tennessee enacts anti-trans law

493

At least one trans student in Tennessee was harassed after state passed bathroom bill.

A transgender high school student in Tennessee says he was bullied by other students after he entered a boys bathroom. Now the boy's mother says school officials have told her that, under a new Tennessee law, her son could be sued by the students who bullied him.

Sherri Yandle told Nashville news station WTVF that her son Tobi is allowed to use the male faculty bathroom at Siegel High School but that on Aug. 23, her son tried to access the restroom and found that it was locked. Then he reportedly went to the boys bathroom, where he was harassed by other boys.

"So he ducked into the boys room and went into the first stall he saw available," she said. "Then he said some boys started chant[ing] transphobic slurs, and then it got louder and louder...they started hitting and kicking at the stall door, so Tobi had to use his back to brace it and then put his foot on the toilet to keep the door shut."

Although an administrator stopped the bullying, Yandle said that that assistant principal informed her "because of Governor Lee's laws that the other students could sue the school if they didn't like it that a transgender child [was] in the bathroom."

Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed a bill into law in May that allows cisgender students, faculty, and other school employees to take legal action against school districts if they see transgender people in the multi-user bathrooms of their gender. The bill went into effect on July 1.

The bill defines "sex" as "a person's immutable biological sex as determined by anatomy and genetics existing at the time of birth" and says that evidence of a biological sex "includes, but is not limited to, a government-issued identification document that accurately reflects a person's sex listed on the person's original birth certificate."

The state also enacted a second bathroom bill this year regulating signs in front of businesses' bathrooms and at each entrance to the building. It required businesses to let their customers know that transgender people could use the bathroom of their gender. That law was blocked by a federal judge in July.

The Human Rights Campaign filed a lawsuit challenging the school bathroom bill in August on behalf of two transgender students who are affected by the law and whose families are considering leaving the state because of it.

In response to the bullying incident, the Rutherford County Sheriff's Office and Rutherford County Schools released a joint statement saying that there are "some variances in the story" and that the school district is required to follow the new state law. It said the school will investigate any sexual harassment or discrimination allegations made under Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex-based discrimination in schools and educational programs receiving federal funds.

In a phone conversation with the American Independent Foundation, Yandle said she had since met with the principal of the school and would be proceeding with a Title IX investigation.

Yandle said students had denied harassing Tobi at first but said that the school eventually found a tape that showed an assistant principal sending a coach into the bathroom, where they witnessed the alleged harassment. The coach said they saw one of the students hitting and kicking the stall door where Tobi had been hiding, and agreed to file a report with the sheriff's office.

Yandle said she had also been in contact with the Tennessee Equality Project, which provided her with educational resources on legal issues.

For his part, Tobi said he didn’t want to go back to school after the incident and had fallen behind on his school work due to related stress.

In a phone call, he claimed he had overheard a conversation between two other students about the bullying incident that had added to his fears of returning to school.

"The dude was being like, 'Hey did you hear the school's getting in trouble for something, a trans kid in the bathroom?'" he said. "...[He] was like, 'If I ever saw a trans person in the restroom, I would fight them or something.'"

Tobi added that the other student had seemed to push back, saying "If I saw a trans kid in the bathroom, I would just let them go to the bathroom."

"[But] it really kind of scared me," Tobi said.

Tennessee is one of several states to pass anti-trans legislation this year, after Republican lawmakers pushed hundreds of bills targeting transgender youth. Eight states enacted laws or have executive orders in place this year that bar transgender student athletes from playing on the sports team of their gender. A federal judge has halted West Virginia's trans sports ban from going into effect; Arkansas passed a law prohibiting transgender youth from accessing hormone treatments and puberty blockers this year, which has been paused after being challenged in court by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Biden administration has responded by supporting lawsuits contesting the bills and encouraging transgender students to file civil rights complaints with the Education Department and Justice Department.

Republicans who advocate for policies restricting transgender kids and adults from sharing spaces with cisgender people often claim that they are concerned about safety. But research shows that it's often transgender people who are endangered by policies like the Tennessee law. In 2019, Harvard University researchers found that transgender and nonbinary youth are most at risk of sexual assault in schools that don't allow them to use the bathroom corresponding with their gender.

This story has been updated with additional comments from Sherri Yandle and her son, Tobi.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.