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VCU expert praises appeals court’s “historic decision” on school bathrooms and transgender students
Headshot of Dr. Abigail Conley

Abigail Conley, Ph.D.

This week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond ruled in favor of a transgender teen who wants to use the boys’ bathroom at his high school in Gloucester County, Virginia.

The decision, which directs a lower court to reconsider the teen’s request for a preliminary injunction to be able to use the restroom, marks the first time that a federal appellate court has ruled that Title IX – the federal law prohibiting gender discrimination in schools – applies to a student’s desire to use the bathroom that aligns with his or her gender identity.

The ruling may have implications for the recently passed law in North Carolina that requires transgender people to only use bathrooms in government buildings, including schools, that correspond with the gender listed on their birth certificate.

“It is our duty to support and protect children in school, not foster discrimination.” – Abigail Conley, Ph.D.

Abigail Conley, Ph.D., an assistant professor of counselor education in the School of Education and an affiliate faculty member in the Institute of Women’s Health, is a member of the Intimate Partner Violence/Sexual Assault Research Development Workgroup and currently serves on the American Counseling Association Anti-Bullying and Interpersonal Violence Task Force, the Campus Alliance to End Violence and the Greater Richmond Stop Child Abuse Now’s Trauma Informed Schools Committee.

Conley’s clinical experience and research interests focus on interpersonal violence survivorship, prevention and institutional response. She also recently organized a conference at VCU titled: “It’s On Us: Title IX, Sexual Violence Prevention, and Trauma- Informed Response in K-12 Schools and Higher Education.”

Conley praised the court’s decision, saying it is the right move to protect transgender students, and cited multiple research studies that demonstrate transgender students struggle to feel comfortable and safe in a school environment.

“I am hopeful this historic decision by the federal appeals court will contribute to dismantling the growing number of bills introduced in state legislatures that compromise the safety and well-being of students who identify as transgender. It is our duty to support and protect children in school, not foster discrimination. Three-quarters of students who identify as transgender feel unsafe in school settings. Indeed, students who experience bias-based harassment are at an increased risk for school truancy, substance use, emotional distress, and long-term effects on mental health and life satisfaction.

“Regardless of their sex or gender expression, every child deserves equal access to thrive in school. In fact, the federal statute Title IX mandates it.

“This decision affirmed the Department of Education’s interpretation of Title IX as protecting students who identify as transgender from discrimination. This includes allowing students to use the restroom that aligns with their gender identity. The official guidance given by the Office for Civil Rights makes clear that Title IX’s sex discrimination prohibition extends to discrimination based on gender identity.

“[The North Carolina law], and those like it, are actively opposed by many professional organizations including: American Academy of Pediatrics, American Counseling Association, American School Counselor Association, Child Welfare League of America, National Association of School Psychologists, National Association of Social Workers, National Education Association and American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.”