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Staff Photo by Tim Omarzu
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A gender-neutral bathroom in the new library has both a toilet and urinal side by side in a stall Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015, on the campus of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in Chattanooga, Tenn.
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Tennessee's debate over transgender bathrooms reignited Friday after President Barack Obama's administration told the nation's public schools to let students use the bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity.

The letter from the federal Justice and Education departments says public schools must treat transgender students in a way that matches their gender identity, even if their education records or identity documents indicate a different sex.

In issuing the guidance, the Obama administration cast the socially divisive debate in terms of civil rights, and making implicit threats of federal funding cuts if schools don't comply with civil rights laws.

Local students and transgender advocates said it's a step in the right direction, but Tennessee lawmakers condemned the measure, calling it a federal overstep and a threat to student safety.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., criticized the move.

"This is the kind of issue that parents, schools boards, communities, students and teachers should be allowed to work out in a practical way with a maximum amount of respect for the individual rights of all students," he said.

But U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. disagreed, saying in a statement that it's the federal government's role to "ensure that our young people know that whoever they are or wherever they come from, they have the opportunity to get a great education in an environment free from discrimination, harassment and violence."

California and Connecticut applauded the federal government's guidance, while more conservative states railed against Obama, vowing defiance Friday.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said his state is prepared to forfeit billions of federal dollars in public school funding if the directive requires schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their chosen gender identity.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen did not comment Friday, only saying she received the information and was reviewing it.

Hamilton County schools Assistant Superintendent of Administrative Services Lee McDade said the guidance has little to no impact on the school system at this time.

Jim Boles, principal at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences Upper School, agreed with McDade, saying he does not anticipate any immediate impacts.

Boles said student privacy issues are always handled on a case-by-case basis, and he doesn't expect that to change. He added that the guidelines issued Friday also say schools can provide additional privacy options to any student for any reason.

"I think that schools in our area have probably used that option," Boles said. "Schools are already probably making that modification for students in that situation."

Looking ahead, Boles said he anticipates additional clarification will be needed because Friday's letter left a lot of questions unanswered.

Nick Wilkins, a senior at Ooltewah High School and the founder of the school's gay-straight alliance, called the guidance as "bitter-sweet."

He said he's excited about the step the White House has taken to support transgender students, but he said there is still a lot of work to be done in Tennessee in order for transgender students to feel safe at school.

Wilkins said he knows more than two-dozen Hamilton County students hiding the fact they are transgender.

"There can be major repercussions for coming out," Wilkins said, mentioning retribution and rejection from family and friends.

He said Obama's directive was an encouragement to students struggling with gender identity, but he is not convinced it will be implemented at the local level.

"What is the path a student takes if their school is not taking this guidance and they are being discriminated by their bathroom use?" Wilkins asked. "What if their principal or the school board doesn't listen?"

Marisa Richmond, lobbyist for the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition, said it's been a struggle in many places across the state to have schools acknowledge transgender students.

Richmond said she thinks the federal guidance shows the White House is serious about acknowledging transgender kids. She also said Title IX laws protect all students from discrimination, regardless of their gender identity.

"This letter is reminding schools that the law is already in place and they are obligated to treat these students with respect," she said.

David Fowler, president of The Family Action Council of Tennessee, strongly disagreed, criticizing Obama for "pretending that a 'guidance letter' can have the force of law."

Fowler challenged Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Attorney General Herbert Slatery to advise schools across the state that the guidance is not the law and can be disregarded.

"If our governor and chief law enforcement officer will not protect the Constitution and rule of law, then they are failing to discharge their constitutional duties, and members of the General Assembly and the public should take notice," he said in a written statement.

The directive also drew fire from Tennessee State Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, who sponsored a bill this year that sought to restrict transgender students in public K-12 schools and colleges to bathrooms and locker rooms based on their sex at birth.

On Friday, Bell accused Obama of "just overriding every state and local policy."

"He cares nothing about local control and everything about kowtowing to the .03 percent of the population out there that's transgender," he said.

Bell said it's time to revisit President Ronald Reagan's effort to abolish the U.S. Department of Education.

"If this is not a reason to get rid of the federal Department of Education and allow the states to completely control what goes on in K-12 education, I don't know what is," Bell said. "And I hope our states start looking at this."

Jennifer Donnals, Gov. Haslam's press secretary, released a statement Friday saying the governor also disagrees with the Obama administration's approach.

"Decisions on sensitive issues such as these are best made at the local level based on the unique needs of students, families, schools and districts while working closely with the local school board counsel," the statement reads.

The president's directive came just days after the Justice Department and North Carolina filed dueling lawsuits over a new state law that says transgender people must use public bathrooms, showers and changing rooms that correspond to the sex on their birth certificate.

The administration said the law violates the Civil Rights Act.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory argued that the state law is a "commonsense privacy policy" and that the Justice Department's position is "baseless and blatant overreach."

Under Friday's directive, schools were told to treat transgender students according to their chosen gender identity as soon as a parent or guardian notifies the district that that identity "differs from previous representations or records." There is no obligation for a student to present a specific medical diagnosis or identification documents that reflect his or her gender identity, and equal access must be given to transgender students even in instances when it makes others uncomfortable, according to the directive.

The administration also released a separate 25-page document of questions and answers about best practices, including ways schools can make transgender students comfortable in the classroom and protect the privacy rights of all students in restrooms or locker rooms.

"As is consistently recognized in civil rights cases, the desire to accommodate others' discomfort cannot justify a policy that singles out and disadvantages a particular class of students," the guidance says.

Staff writer Andy Sher contributed to this report. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at kendi.anderson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.

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