While a new U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) policy focuses on ensuring food security for students, there are requirements that reach beyond nutrition. Students’ equal access to bathrooms or locker rooms is also a requirement of the new policy in order for schools to continue to receive federal funds for their free student meal programs. Under the policy, transitioning, questioning or transgender students must be able to use bathrooms of the opposite sex that were originally marked for use specifically by boys or girls. Since the 2018-2019 school year, Hernando County schools have served free breakfasts and lunches to all students with revenue provided under the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) program. To continue to participate in this program the Biden Administration requires that schools open girls’ bathrooms to biological males that are questioning their gender identity or who identify as female (and vice versa).
Through the FNS expanded Community Eligibility Provision, beginning in 2018-2019 the school district received roughly $10.8 million for free breakfast and lunch for all students. Prior to the expansion to all students, the district received $6.6 million in 2017-2018. The district undergoes an evaluation for the Community Eligibility Provision every four years.
Last month, the FNS announced that it will interpret the prohibition of discrimination based on sex contained in Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and in the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), to include discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
In a written statement, the USDA said that the action lines up with President Joe Biden’s executive order on preventing and combating discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.
At the same time, the agency requires that schools receive federal money under the FNS to investigate allegations of discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation.
According to Karen Jordan, Public Information Officer for the Hernando County School District, during the 2021-2022 school year, district schools served more than 279,000 after-school snacks/suppers, more than 1,230,000 breakfasts, and more than 2,598,000 lunches for a total of more than 4,107,000 meals altogether.
During the summer of 2021, the district served 29,958 breakfasts and 34,133 lunches for a total of 64,091 meals, Jordan said.
Specifically, Hernando District Policy states, that the Hernando County School Board does “not illegally discriminate or to allow its employees to illegally discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, age, sex (including sexual orientation, transgender status or gender identity), marital status, disability, pregnancy, military status, ancestry, or Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA) in its educational programs or employment practice.”
There is no school board-approved policy for transgender students to use the bathroom/locker room that corresponds with their gender identity beyond the broad antidsicrimination policy, according to Jordan.
“At this time, there are no board-approved “requirements.” Instead, school administrators work with the student and the student’s family to develop a plan that is respectful of student privacy while also adhering to anti-discrimination requirements under the law.”
When asked if the school district has denied any boys access to the girls’ bathroom who have stated they are transgender or questioning, Jordan stated, “This would be handled at the school level.” It does not appear possible to deny an insistent biological male access to the girls’ restroom and locker room, since a person questioning their gender does not necessarily present any outward indications. Determining if the student was truly questioning would be very subjective.
In January, an anonymous letter sent to the Hernando Sun described a situation at the Nature Coast Technical (NCT) High School regarding a young man “that identifies as a ‘female’ and a young woman that identifies as ‘male,’” who used locker rooms originally marked for the opposite sex. The letter said that the school’s administrators sought the District’s guidance on the situation, and was directed to the District’s non-discrimination policy forbidding schools or personnel to illegally discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, age, sex – including sexual orientation, transgender status or gender identity.
“Parents and student alike are very disturbed by this decision (to allow non-discriminatory bathroom or locker room use), and felt that it should be brought ‘public,’ so that the community at large could be made aware,” the letter read.
In response to a public record request from the Hernando Sun, Jordan said that HCSD has not received any complaints regarding transgender students using the restrooms or locker rooms opposite of their biological sex.
“The district has received no complaints nor ‘Expressed Concerns’ on this topic (regarding transgender students using the restroom of their opposite biological sex) within the last year,” Jordan said.
Julie B. Maglio contributed to this report.