As transgender teens struggle, here's how one Kentucky school leads the way

JUDY WOODRUFF: Public schools are caught in the middle of a political debate over bathrooms. The Obama administration says restricting a transgender student's access to restrooms and locker rooms based on biological sex is discrimination and can be grounds for withholding funding.

But that directive has set off some angry reaction. Kentucky is one state where many leaders don't agree with the president. And we look at how one school in Louisville decided to act proactively before the bigger debate began.

Special correspondent Yasmeen Qureshi of Education Week has the story. It's part of our weekly education series, Making the Grade.

YASMEEN QURESHI: What's it like to question your gender?

MADDIE DALTON, Student, Atherton High School: It's a little bit scary in the very beginning, I suppose, because you know that you're going to have to face a lot of discrimination.

Like, go through the YouTube comments on any video about trans people, and you will see, like, just how many people are still, like, openly hostile to this idea.

YASMEEN QURESHI: Seventeen-year-old Maddie Dalton is transgender. She says she's always been a girl, but didn't know it.

CASSANDRA KASEY, Parent: Forever, she had that little widow's peak.

YASMEEN QURESHI: She came out to her parents when she was 15 years old.

CASSANDRA KASEY: It was chaotic at first.

And the way I felt it in the very beginning, when I was still coming to terms with it, was, if I had a friend who came to me and said that their child had come out to them as transgender, I would have thought, hooray. You know, your — this young person is becoming who they are.

So, why would I not afford my own child that same — that same blessing? So, even though it was difficult, it was the only right thing to do.

YASMEEN QURESHI: Maddie is a junior at Atherton High School in Louisville, Kentucky. She was the first openly transgender student at the school.

MADDIE DALTON: I was a little bit hesitant right at first, but I knew that, being at Atherton, I would be — I would be pretty safe.

YASMEEN QURESHI: A public high school with about 1,300 students, Atherton is one of the highest-ranked schools in the state. It's known for its international studies program and as a place where diversity is embraced.

TONY PRINCE, Teacher, Atherton High School: Developing a safe climate for students is fundamental. And I think that we did — we were doing that here before we ever started on the transgender issue.

YASMEEN QURESHI: Humanities teacher Tony Prince supervises the school's LGBT student group. Maddie confided in him about her newly realized gender identity.

TONY PRINCE: I asked her what that means. You know, what would the school look like to her if it were accepting of her as a transgender person? And so she wrote a little list of things.

MADDIE DALTON: I wanted it to be enforced that students and teachers should use my name and pronouns and to use the space that I identify with, so bathrooms and locker rooms.

YASMEEN QURESHI: Atherton didn't have a protocol for transgender students. The decision was left to principal Dr. Thomas Aberli.

THOMAS ABERLI, Principal, Atherton High School: Our school protects all students, and that the issue of gender identity has simply been a demonstration of the school's commitment to respecting all individuals in our school.

YASMEEN QURESHI: Aberli agreed to Maddie's requests and, after much consideration, so did the school council, making it the first school in Kentucky to adopt an official policy for transgender students.

MAN: This policy is completely disregarding the privacy of all of their students.

YASMEEN QURESHI: A group of parents, students and community members publicly objected and hired an attorney to appeal the decision.

WOMAN: The girls at this school expect to be able to go into a restroom and feel safe. Because of this policy, we no longer have that assurance.

YASMEEN QURESHI: The group called for transgender students to use a private or unisex bathroom.

Why would that be a problem for you?

MADDIE DALTON: First of all, it makes you a target for bullying and, like, harassment. It puts it in everyone's minds that you are different, and you are something to be looked at, not as, like, a person, but as whatever characteristic is differentiating you, like being trans.

YASMEEN QURESHI: After months of debate at Atherton High School, the policy was upheld, but the opposition didn't stop there.

KENT OSTRANDER, Executive Director, The Family Foundation: Young ladies, girls, may not want a biological male in their bathroom. That's kind of the traditional way we have done things since the founding of this nation.

YASMEEN QURESHI: Kent Ostrander is the director of The Family Foundation of Kentucky, a conservative advocacy organization. Last year, it supported a statewide bill that would have overturned Atherton's policy. But it was never passed into law.

KENT OSTRANDER: The legislation simply said that schools could do all kinds of accommodations for their students, including transgender students. But the one thing that they could not do is put — is mix the biological sexes in a bathroom, a locker room at the same time.

SUZANNE ECKES, Indiana University: According to guidelines coming from the U.S. Department of education and the U.S. Department of Justice, that is discrimination.

YASMEEN QURESHI: Education policy professor Suzanne Eckes is referring to a letter the Obama administration sent to schools last month. It directed them to allow transgender students access to bathrooms and locker rooms based on their gender identity.

SUZANNE ECKES: The department has interpreted gender identity to fall under the Title IX law, which prohibits discrimination based on sex. We don't have a lot of court guidance on it. So, if you're in a state that has no litigation on this particular topic, the only thing you really have to go on is the recent "Dear Colleague" letter.

YASMEEN QURESHI: However, several Republican state leaders are advising schools to ignore the guidance, putting them at risk of losing federal funding.

KENT OSTRANDER: Why does there have to be a new federal government law telling everybody how they're going to do the bathrooms? That's just crazy. Why is the federal government interested in bathrooms?

Because states can make that decision on their own. Parents can make that decision.

SUZANNE ECKES: I don't think this is a Democrat or Republican or liberal or conservative issue. This is a civil rights issue. This isn't a states' rights issue. This is a civil rights issue. Transgender students, for years, have been ostracized in public schools.

YASMEEN QURESHI: Nearly half of transgender teens report having suicidal thoughts. And their rates of depression and anxiety are far higher than the average.

MAN: Good morning, Atherton High School.

YASMEEN QURESHI: It's been over two years since Atherton High School adopted its bathroom policy, and several students at the school have since come out as transgender.

Principal Aberli says that, despite early objections to the policy, most students have embraced it.

NATALIE STASTNY, Student, Atherton High School: It's just going to the bathroom. You go do your business, then you wash your hands, and then you leave. It's just simple. And when people make a big deal about it, it just kind of gets blown out of proportion.

NIJA MACKEY, Student, Atherton High School: Coming from, like, a religious background, like, I am Christian, and people don't necessarily agree with that type of stuff. But I have been going to this school for two years, and it's just routine. Like, everyone gets to the restroom, everyone gets out. It's nothing, nothing. It's not a big deal.

DR. THOMAS ABERLI: Something I struggled with originally was just understanding the difference between what it meant to discriminate vs. accommodate when it came to this issue. If any student said that they were uncomfortable with using a restroom, then they can choose an alternate restroom.

But we're not to compel other people to act differently just because they make someone else feel uncomfortable. That is not what our country is about. That is not a right to privacy.

YASMEEN QURESHI: The school provides access to private faculty restrooms for any student who requests it.

MADDIE DALTON: It all comes down to being respected as a person and accepted. Now, that's all relying on the fundamental assumption that you respect being transgender as a legitimate, like, concept, as a legitimate thing. And I think that's where most of the trouble comes in.

YASMEEN QURESHI: In Louisville, Kentucky, this is Yasmeen Qureshi of Education Week reporting for the "PBS NewsHour."