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What happens when one student's rights conflict with another's?

November 24, 2012 - Andrea Johnson
How far do schools need to go to accommodate the needs of a student with different needs? A couple of interesting cases in the news illustrate the difficulties involved when accommodating one student's needs might infringe on the rights of another student.

The first case involved a transgender child who lives in Maine. According to The Bangor News, a judge there ruled in favor of a public school that had refused to allow a fifth-grade transgender child to use the girls bathroom. After the grandfather of another student at the school complained, the school solved the problem by having the child, who was born male but identifies and dresses as a girl, to use a staff bathroom.

The judge, William Anderson, wrote in a 26-page opinion that he is sympathetic to the child's situation, but he found no evidence that the school district acted with "deliberate indifference" to "known, severe and pervasive student-on-student harassment" of the transgender child. Anderson found that the school district was acting within the law by requiring the child to use a private restroom.

The transgender child, who is now 15, now attends a private school elsewhere in the state and is apparently doing very well there socially and academically. The parents who filed the lawsuit said their child was bullied at the public school they are suing. They're disappointed with the decision but apparently plan an appeal.

Maine apparently has a Human Rights Act which, among other things, forbids segregating a child from other students because of gender identity. The family's lawyer feels that the school district violated this law and the judge's ruling is wrong, which probably will be the basis of their appeal. There are a number of issues here: how far should a school district be required to go to accommodate the needs of a transgender child or, for that matter, a child with any other difference? What happens if accommodating that child's rights is seen as an infringement upon the rights of another student in the school?

There was another interesting case this month, this one out of California, involving a middle school boy who has genetic mutations related to cystic fibrosis but doesn't have the actual disease. His parents voluntarily divulged this information when they filled out his school entrance forms to a new school. When school officials found out, they wanted the boy to transfer to another school because two other children with cystic fibrosis already attended the school. Apparently kids who have cystic fibrosis carry bacteria in their lungs that can make each other sick, according to the San Francisco Gate, and children with cystic fibrosis who are not members of the same family are not supposed to be in the same room together.

The parents of the new student sued the school district and eventually arrived at an out of court settlement that means the boy will transfer to another classroom in the same school and won't use the same bathrooms as the two children with cystic fibrosis. The boy missed 11 days of school while they were hammering out a settlement.

In both cases, the school districts solved the problem in a way that wasn't what the parents or the child originally wanted: the transgender child wanted to use the girls bathroom and be treated as a girl by everyone at school; the parents of the child with the cystic fibrosis mutation didn't think it was necessary for their boy to switch classrooms or have to avoid using certain restroom facilities at his school. However, parents of other children in those schools felt their children's rights were being infringed upon. In both cases, the school districts ended up in court over the way they tried to balance the rights of different students.

What do you think schools ought to do under circumstances like these?


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