By DAVID SHARP
Lawyers for a transgender girl and an elementary school that required the fifth-grader to use a staff bathroom instead of the girls restroom clashed before Maine’s highest court Wednesday over whether her rights were violated, a case that lays bare the difficult decisions facing school administrators.
The family and the Maine Human Rights Commission sued, but a judge in the state’s lower Superior Court ruled that the Orono school district acted within its discretion by requiring her to use a staff bathroom after there was a complaint about the student using the girls bathroom.
After Wednesday’s hearing, the student, Nicole Maines, who’s now 15 and attending a high school in southern Maine, said she wouldn’t wish her experience on anyone else and hope the justices hear her out.
“I hope they understood how important it is for students to be able to go to school and get an education and have fun and make friends, and not have to worry about being bullied by students or administration, and be accepted for who they are,” the sophomore said.
At issue is whether the school violated the Maine Human Rights Act, which bars discrimination based on sex or sexual orientation. But state law also requires separate bathrooms for boys and girls in schools.
Melissa Hewey, lawyer for the school and school district, said afterward it should be up to the Legislature to clarify the issue.
“To the extent that the people in Maine decide that this law in Maine should be changed, then that should be done. But right now the law is what it is, and our school district didn’t violate it,” she said.
The case goes beyond just the bathroom issue to the broader question of what’s best for transgender students, said Jennifer Levi, director of Transgender Rights Project for the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders.
“At the core of this case is whether the promise of equal educational opportunities for transgender students is realized,” she said.
It’s a topic that school administrators are grappling with nationwide.
Policies about transgender adults are still evolving, and the thinking about how to handle children who identify with the gender opposite of the sex they’re born with is even more complex.
Last year, the American Psychiatric Association removed “gender identity disorder” from its list of mental health ailments. And the Maine Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics filed a brief urging that transgender children be allowed to use the bathroom of their choice.
In the Maine case, Nicole Maines is a biological male who from an early age identified as a girl.
School officials initially allowed her to use the girls bathroom in her school, but the policy was altered after the grandfather of a fifth-grade boy complained to school officials. Maines’ attorneys said she felt like she was singled out by having to use the staff bathroom.
The family and their child are not identified in the lawsuit alleging discrimination under the Maine Human Rights Act. But they’ve since been identified Wayne and Kelly Maines and their identical twins, Nicole and Jonas.
Wayne Maines struggled to maintain his composure as he gave a brief statement outside the Penobscot Judicial Center, where the Maine Supreme Judicial Court heard the arguments.
“It has been extremely difficult, but I’m pleased to be here and to have our case heard, and I’m very hopeful for a good outcome,” he said, with Nicole, Jonas and his wife at his side.