Amid Trans Bathroom Battle, Patrick Promotes School Choice (Updated)

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick walks past pro-LGBT protesters Tuesday inside the Fort Worth ISD Administration Building. He hosted a press conference where he spoke against the district’s new guidelines protecting transgender students, which he said could be used as a springboard to further advance his conservative "school choice" plan.
John Wright
Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick walks past Fort Worth pro-LGBT protesters Tuesday before a press conference where he spoke against the district’s new guidelines protecting transgender students. He said they could be used as a springboard to further advance his conservative “school choice” plan.

Update, 1:20 p.m.: 

On Twitter, state Representative Matt Rinaldi responded to our original story saying that the Observer had quoted him inaccurately:

“Inaccurate & cut my quote. Simple search shows many examples of rest room assaults eg Schwartz, Pomere, etc.” (sic)

The exchange between the Observer and Rinaldi played out as follows:

Texas Observer: Are you aware of any instance in which a sexual predator has used one of those ordinances to go into a bathroom to commit a crime?

Matt Rinaldi: “Yes, anecdotally. I don’t know of anything specific. I’ve looked for them in the past, and I think you could find them as well if you looked for them.”

Texas Observer: Is it a major problem? Is this a pressing issue of people pretending to be transgender?

Matt Rinaldi: “Is it a pressing issue that now we need a policy school-wide to promote transgenderism when it’s such a small portion of the population, and that suddenly we need to make policies about this? There have been transgender people around for ages, for decades, and suddenly now there’s a push. It isn’t to help them. It’s to push an agenda. It’s to push social engineering in our schools. So I would turn that right back on you and say, ‘Why now?'”

The cases Rinaldi references in his tweets involve cisgender California men who were arrested (Gregory Phillip Schwartz and Jason Pomare) for harassing and filming women in public restrooms. Neither are transgender, and both were successfully prosecuted or pleaded guilty under existing law. To date, there are no known incidents of a cisgender man successfully using a nondiscrimination ordinance to evade prosecution for a sex crime.

Original story:

Policies protecting the rights of transgender students, such as the one implemented by Fort Worth ISD last month, could lead to “the end of the public school system as we know it,” according to Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick.

Then again, Patrick suggested, perhaps that would be a good thing, ushering in the implementation of one of his major conservative causes: a right-wing school choice agenda that includes charter schools and school vouchers, which have so far proven to be less palatable to members of the Lege.

“If it’s not turned back by the school board or by the people or by the superintendent, I believe this is the biggest promotion for something I feel strongly about, and that’s school choice,” Patrick said Tuesday afternoon at a news conference at the Fort Worth ISD Administration Building, where he reiterated his call for Superintendent Kent Scribner to resign over the district’s new “Transgender Student Guidelines.”

“I don’t think a parent should be forced by their zip code to send their child to a school if they don’t want their daughter stigmatized by having to raise their hand and say, ‘I’m sorry, can you make special accommodations for me, because I don’t want this boy in the bathroom with me?’” Patrick said, adding that the guidelines are an example of “social engineering” taking precedence over schools’ “core mission.”

Patrick was joined for his press conference by other Republican lawmakers, including Irving state Representative Matt Rinaldi.

Asked whether there have been instances of similar policies leading to sexual assaults in school restrooms — claims frequently made by Patrick and other transgender rights opponents — Rinaldi told the Observer, “I don’t know of anything specific.”

Under the Fort Worth ISD guidelines, unprecedented in Texas and among the more progressive in the nation, trans students are generally allowed to use restrooms and locker rooms, and participate in athletics, according to their gender identity. The eight-page document also requires teachers to use the names and pronouns that align with students’ gender identity, and bars staff from disclosing students’ gender identity, including to parents, except on a need-to-know basis.

Both Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton maintain the FWISD guidelines run afoul of the Texas Education Code — specifically provisions related to parental rights — and reflect a misinterpretation of federal law.

The Obama administration, as well as a recent ruling from a federal appeals court, have said that trans students are protected under Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments, which prohibits discrimination based on sex. Patrick called those interpretations “a fantasy” and “mythical,” saying they have “no basis in law and no basis in fact.”

Patrick also accused Scribner of unilaterally adopting the guidelines without input from school board members or parents, but FWISD Trustee Matthew Avila told the Observer that the trustees were aware of the process.

“We did see some drafts as they were being circulated,” said Avila, “and we had some specific discussion in [executive session] related to the Department of Justice, Office of Civil Rights’ recommendation about running afoul of Title IX, and got some legal advice from counsel.”

Earlier Tuesday, Scribner rejected Patrick’s call to resign, telling the Star-Telegram he’s proud of the guidelines, which supporters say are merely an extension of a 2011 policy prohibiting bullying and harassment based on gender identity and expression.

Openly gay former Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns, who staged a press conference prior to Patrick’s, said Scribner drafted the guidelines after being approached by administrators about how to implement the 2011 policy.

“Dan Patrick’s a bully,” Burns told the Observer. “He’s not here to learn anything or experience anything. He’s here to intimidate and threaten. For him to express this false outrage over this policy that’s been in place for five years … it’s really just a publicity stunt. It’s politics.”

Avila predicted the board will uphold the guidelines, but may tweak provisions related to notifying parents about students’ gender identity.

Board President Jacinto “Cinto” Ramos, Jr. also said Scribner “kept us in the loop.”

“Regardless of what Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick wants to do, we’re here for children,” Ramos told the Observer. “The bottom line is, we got this. A number of us on the board have our own children here, so safety’s a priority. We know and understand that even the most marginalized populations in our community deserve to be protected, and Title IX is clear on discrimination.”

Following the news conferences, hundreds of supporters and opponents of the guidelines packed the school board’s regular meeting. The board didn’t formally discuss the topic because it wasn’t on the agenda, but heard 60 minutes of public comment.

It marked the second consecutive week in which the bathroom issue has dominated headlines in North Texas, after the Rockwall City Council rejected an anti-trans bathroom ordinance in early May. Both controversies have played out against the backdrop of North Carolina, where LGBT advocacy groups, Governor Pat McCrory and the justice department have filed three separate federal lawsuits seeking to determine whether House Bill 2, which bars trans people from using public restrooms according to their gender identity, violates their civil rights.

John Wright is a freelance journalist based in Austin. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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Published at 9:38 am CST