NASHVILLE — The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee says it filed a federal complaint against Sumner County schools, saying the Middle Tennessee school district's policy that bars transgender students from using restrooms corresponding with their "gender identity" violates federal anti-discrimination law and the U.S. Constitution.

The complaint was filed with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights on behalf of a transgender high school freshman and her parents. 

It calls for the district to be required to allow the student use the girls' restrooms and locker rooms at school as well as develop a new policy ensuring that transgender students be treated the same as other students.

The ACLU-Tennessee filing comes in the midst of a boiling debate in Tennessee and nationally over transgender students' use of restrooms. The U.S. Department of Justice recently sued the state of North Carolina over a somewhat similar law. Just last week the Obama administration issued guidance directing public schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms matching their gender identity or risk losing federal funding.

In the ACLU-Tennessee news release, cooperating attorney Abby R. Rubenfeld said "no student should have to endure the stigma and marginalization of being segregated from the rest of the student body. These kinds of blanket bans prevent transgender students from being treated fairly and equally at school."


Rubenfeld, who is in private practice, called Sumner County's policy "not only misguided, it's a direct violation of Title IX and the Fourteenth Amendment."

According to ACLU-Tennessee, the student is only allowed to use the faculty or the special needs bathroom. The complaint says that to avoid the stigma of using segregated restrooms, the student either tries to avoid using a restroom at all while at school or uses the girls' restroom under "fear of punishment" by school officials.

The Sumner County situation became a focal point at one point in Tennessee lawmakers' debate this year over transgender students. The bill would have required public transgender students to use bathrooms and locker facilities matching their biological sex at birth rather than a student's gender identity.

Republican proponents of the bill accused ACLU-Tennessee officials of threatening to sue the system if they refused to change their policy. The House sponsor eventually shelved the measure.

ACLU-Tennessee said in its news release today that "after trying unsuccessfully to work out reasonable accommodations with the school system for the entire 2015-2016 academic year, the student's family sought legal assistance. On March 4, 2016, ACLU-TN sent a letter to the director of schools requesting a meeting to resolve the issues."

The letter, ACLU-Tennessee said, urged school officials to "discretely come to a reasonable solution in collaboration with the family" and specifically stated it was the group's and "family's desire to handle the situation without litigation.

However, the group said, Sumner County's school system has indicated it isn't willing to to alter its restroom policy to conform to the requirements of federal law and the needs of the students involved.

"In our experience, when transgender students, their families and school systems have been able to sit down and discuss a student's particular situation, more often than not they are able to come to a workable solution together at the local level," said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU-Tennessee executive director.

She said the civil rights advocacy group "tried to work with the school district to find a practical solution.  We now hope that the Office for Civil Rights will act quickly to ensure that transgender students in Sumner County are treated fairly and that the investigation results in the school system better understanding the needs of all students in their schools rather than acting out of fear, confusion and misunderstanding."