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Okla. AG: We 'will vigorously defend state's interests' against bathroom directive

Oklahoma leaders react to directive on transgender access to bathrooms, locker rooms in public schools. (KOKH)

TULSA, Okla. (KTUL) -- The Obama administration issued a directive Friday addressing the question of bathroom access for transgender students in the nation's public schools.

It says public schools must allow students to use bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their chosen gender identity.

The directive, released by the departments of Education and Justice, says, "There is no room in our schools for discrimination of any kind."

It may not carry the authority of law, but the letter does warn schools that don't comply could face lawsuits and the loss of federal funding based on the provisions of Title IX.

Here in Oklahoma, Friday's announcement was met with plenty of pushback and outrage.

State Superintendent of Schools Joy Hofmeister said the directive is another example of federal overreach.

I believe this is an outrageous overreach by the federal government. It nearly defies belief that the Obama Administration now wants to direct how Oklahoma schools and districts operate our bathrooms. Furthermore, I find it disturbing that this 'joint guidance' carries an implicit threat of loss of federal funds. In the midst of a historic funding crisis for public education, schools should not be burdened with this sort of overreach yet again.
Educators have a responsibility to ensure that every child is safe, treated with respect, and given the opportunity to learn. Oklahoma schools know the needs of our students and communities, and meeting those needs should solely remain a matter of local control.

The Jenks Public School district also released a statement explaining its current policy on the matter.

At Jenks Public Schools, it is our priority to meet the needs of all students. Regarding transgender students and the use of restroom facilities, it is our practice to evaluate the needs of those students on a case-by-case basis and accommodate those students in a manner which is respectful not only to the transgender students but to all students enrolled at Jenks Public Schools.

Lawmakers representing Oklahoma in Washington D.C. were not pleased with Friday's directive.

In a lengthy statement, Senator James Lankford said the administration is trying to create law out of thin air.

The Obama Department of Education's guidance letter on the use of public school bathrooms is another example of how they have continued to create law out of thin air with Dear Colleague letters, threats and intimidation. They have continually shown a pattern of federal overreach and bullying of schools while attempting to force their ideology outside of the legal requirements for creating policy. The proposal in today's guidance is so significant and groundbreaking, it should only be considered by legislation, preferably at the local level, instead of through a Department of Education guidance letter. Even though the Department will say that guidance does not have the force of law, every school district in the country will be terrified of going against a federal agenda. This is threatening and intimidating and has no place in our government.
In November, Congress debated and passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, which is the reauthorization of the latest elementary and secondary education laws. This legislation would have been the proper place for consideration of this type of change in law. During that debate, transgender student policy was discussed but Congress ultimately decided to defer to states and localities.
This proposal has many unintended consequences for safety and gender fairness, which are completely being ignored in this conversation. This type of policy change has major implications for safety, the use of school locker rooms, and participation of sports teams in school. No student should feel unwelcome at school, but we cannot ignore the fact that this policy will make the majority of American families unwelcome in their own school. The people of Oklahoma are welcoming to all, but they deserve the right to make their own choices on how to honor and protect each child.

This year, Lankford has repeatedly challenged the Department of Education's inappropriate use of 'Dear Colleague' letters and "guidance documents" to mandate policy for schools without adhering to the legislative process or transparent regulatory process, as required by law. Academics and legal experts have agreed with Lankford's criticism of the Department of Education. Lankford voted against the confirmation of Education Secretary John King because of Mr. King's philosophy about the Department's overreach. In September 2015, Lankford chaired a hearing on their pattern of executive overreach, as well.

Oklahoma Congressman Tom Cole equated the letter with bullying.

Regardless of one's views on gender identity, President Obama's decision to threaten school districts with loss of federal funds to accomplish his liberal objectives is outrageous," said Cole. "His latest attempt to push his extreme agenda represents everything Oklahomans dislike about a strong federal government. It is absolutely inappropriate for the nation's highest elected official to use threats in order to force his own views of morality and normalcy on states and localities, even if those views aren't shared by the majority of the people living there.
The president's latest action is extremely inappropriate and perhaps unconstitutional. States are already confronting the issue of gender identity effectively in the ways that best fit the lifestyle, beliefs and culture of each state. To impose guidance on morality and withhold funds in cases of noncompliance is shameful.

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt submitted a letter to the Education and Justice departments Friday afternoon, saying they have redefined "sex" as "gender identity" and forced the definition on parents and students, despite any discomfort they may have with it.

Your determination thus elevates the status of transgender students over those who would define their sex based on biology and who would seek to have their definition honored in the most private of places. Indeed, those latter students and their families cannot even seek reassurance that a transgender student's self-definition is not premised on whim or caprice because you have disavowed the school's ability to seek any form of documentation regarding the transgender child's self-definition.

Pruitt says Oklahoma "will vigorously defend the state's interests."

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