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Pine-Richland transgender students can use bathroom of choice, federal judge rules |

Pine-Richland transgender students can use bathroom of choice, federal judge rules

Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pine-Richland transgender seniors Juliet Evancho (left) and Elissa Ridenour spoke at a news conference regarding their lawsuit against the Pine-Richland School District over its controversial bathroom policy on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016, in Cranberry.

Pine-Richland School District schools must allow transgender students to use bathrooms that match their gender identity while the district’s new restroom policy is challenged in court, a federal judge ruled Monday.

“I am so relieved that I can end my senior year like this,” said Elissa Ridenour, 18, one of three transgender students who in October sued the district over the controversial policy. The mandate required transgender students either to use bathrooms and locker rooms that match their biological sex or to use a separate unisex facility.

“It has really taken a weight off my back,” said Ridenour, “but the fight’s not over.”

It’ll likely be several months or longer for the lawsuit to reach a resolution.

But the preliminary injunction imposed by U.S. District Judge Mark Hornak ensures Pine-Richland’s students may use the bathroom in line with their chosen identity — not their “assigned” or anatomical sex — while court proceedings play out. In his 48-page opinion, Hornak cited equal protection rights guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.

“The plaintiffs appear to the court to be young people seeking to do what young people try to do every day — go to school, obtain an education and interact as equals with their peers,” Hornak wrote.

In a statement released Tuesday morning, Pine-Richland spokeswoman Rachel Hathhorn said: “The district will implement the order issued through the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.”

The judge agreed with the plaintiffs’ claims that the restroom rules could be causing harm to the affected students. He noted that some transgender students had used bathrooms of their choosing for several years before the school board enacted the policy on a 5-4 vote in September.

Because transgender students suddenly were barred from doing so, “it is not a long leap, nor really a leap at all, to give credence to the plaintiffs’ assertions that they subjectively feel marginalized, and objectively are being marginalized, which is causing them genuine distress, anxiety, discomfort and humiliation,” Hornak wrote.

Most days since the policy went into effect, transgender students “were just refraining from using the restroom at school at all,” said Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, attorney for the plaintiffs.

Ridenour said using the unisex stall “made me feel very secluded, sort of like I was under a microscope and everybody was looking at me. I felt like I was in this little petri dish.”

The case has drawn national attention to Pine-Richland — a school district of about 4,600 students in Pittsburgh’s northern suburbs — just as similar challenges and debates intensify around the country.

Next month, the Supreme Court will take up a case regarding fair bathroom access for transgender students spurred by Gavin Grimm, a transgender high school student in Virginia. Grimm’s case focuses on protections granted by Title IX, a 1972 federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex.

Last week, the Trump administration instructed public education officials to disregard Obama-era directives regarding transgender student rights. Obama had threatened to withhold federal funding from schools that did not let children use bathrooms that correspond with their chosen gender identity.

Trump argued that such decisions should be left to schools and states.

In the Pine-Richland case, Ridenour is joined by two student plaintiffs, a 17-year-old transgender male student identified as A.S. and Juliet Evancho, 18. Evancho is the sister of Jackie Evancho — the 16-year-old “America’s Got Talent” finalist who sang the National Anthem at Trump’s inauguration.

Monday’s injunction should send a message to “any public school that had any questions as to whether they must permit a transgender student to use the restroom that matches who they are” about the importance of “treating (transgender students) with dignity and respect,” said Gonzalez-Pagan of Lambda Legal, a national organization dedicated to protecting the civil rights of the LGBT community.

“These are incredibly brave young people who stood up to fight for their rights and the rights of others,” said Gonzalez-Pagan, “and we’re glad to see their rights vindicated.”

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514 or [email protected].

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