School children placed at risk by Initiative 1515

Catherine Ushka, Tacoma School Board member. Photo by
Catherine Ushka, Tacoma School Board member. Photo by

As a Tacoma School Board director, and a mom of two, I’m troubled by proposed state Initiative 1515, which would repeal our state’s non-discrimination protections for transgender people in housing, employment and public places, including public schools.

Though these protections have been in place for 10 years, many are hearing about them for the first time. Few of us personally know a transgender person. So it’s understandable some might feel anxious about what non-discrimination protections for transgender students mean for schools — even those trying to make sense of the issue calmly and reasonably.

That’s why it is important to get the facts about how these laws work and the consequences of I-1515 for all students and schools.

Every day, Washington schools work to meet the needs of all students so they can learn and succeed. This includes students facing additional challenges such as family violence, poverty, learning disabilities, language barriers — and sometimes students who are transgender. Over the past decade, outside of the media spotlight, Washington schools have protected transgender students from discrimination using a case-by-case approach that balances the needs of other students and keeps the focus on learning.

Despite claims by I-1515 proponents, non-discrimination protections for transgender students don’t interfere with the safe and respectful use of school restrooms and locker rooms. Schools set standards of conduct and have policies and procedures to handle misbehavior. Any student who breaks the rules by entering a restroom or locker room to harm, invade the privacy of, or harass another student, can and should be subject to appropriate disciplinary action.

This local approach works. But I-1515 would strip school districts of the ability to do what’s best for each student and school and replace the local control of parents and teachers with a one-size-fits-all mandate. It requires schools to discriminate by segregating transgender students into special facilities or forcing them to use facilities that don’t match their genuine gender identity. This puts transgender students at greater risk for bullying, harassment, and violence at school and also has serious consequences for all Washington public schools and the students they serve.

That’s because discrimination against transgender students is a violation of federal law. By forcing Washington’s schools to violate this law, I-1515 could cause Washington to forfeit more than $1 billion each year in federal dollars for our K-12 schools. It’s already happening in North Carolina, which recently passed a measure like I-1515.

That’s not all. I-1515 also opens up the floodgates to new lawsuits against public schools. If a public school permits transgender students to use facilities consistent with their gender identity, I-1515 gives non-transgender students the right sue their school every time they happen to be in the restroom or locker room at the same time. Washington’s public school funding already falls short of what is needed to prepare students for college, jobs, and life. If I-1515 passes, taxpayers and students will all pay the price.

As parents, we love our children and care deeply about their safety, well-being and future success. As a parent, and as a school board director, I believe I-1515 puts all of our kids at risk.

That’s why I’ve joined more than 200 elected officials and leaders in education, businesses, faith communities, law enforcement and women’s safety in endorsing Washington Won’t Discriminate, the campaign to stop I-1515 and protect all students from discrimination.

Catherine Ushka is vice president of Tacoma Public Schools Board of Directors.