Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, enters room where he will announce information on a lawsuit filed in U.S District Court against several federal agencies regarding bathroom and locker room rules in Texas public schools on May 25, 2016 | Photo by Marjorie Kamys Cotera
When Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced Wednesday that he had filed a lawsuit challenging federal guidelines for transgender students, he said it was to protect a Texas school district that had adopted a policy requiring students to use bathrooms according to the gender cited on their birth certificates.
He didn’t say his office asked the district to pass the policy.
Nor did he say what The Texas Tribune has now learned: that his staff had approached another North Texas school district about pursuing the policy — and the lawsuit — 10 days earlier.
On May 16, two top Paxton aides attended a Wichita Falls school board meeting. The board was considering an agenda item regarding gender-specific restrooms and requesting legal representation from the attorney general’s office.
In a video recording of the meeting, Trey Sralla, the Wichita Falls school board president, introduces Paxton senior adviser Ben Williams and Assistant Attorney General Andrew Leonie, explaining that they are there to answer questions about the proposed policy.
“This has come down from the attorney general’s office, who have asked us to look at a policy here and [said] that they would be willing to on our behalf go and take this to the court system,” Sralla said at the meeting, which came three days after the federal government released guidelines instructing school districts to let transgender students use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.
Leonie then fielded several questions from board members, including whether getting involved in legal action would mean the district would lose federal funding.
“I wish I had brought my crystal ball with me but I left that in Austin,” Leonie said. “We are here to reassure you that if you should adopt a policy like is under consideration, we will do what we can to back you and to protect you from the federal government, whether that means being proactive in filing a suit or whether it is responding to a suit, I don’t know.”
After about an hour of discussion, board members ultimately decided against adopting the policy, concluding that the district already had appropriate practices in place to address the needs of transgender students.
“I feel like in this situation we’ve been put between a rock and a hard place by both the federal and our state government where we are the
ones who would be the sacrificial lambs effectively in this fight,” said board member Elizabeth Yeager. “I think that would be completely a waste of time and a distraction from our school business of educating students.”
Wichita Falls Superintendent Michael Kurht also came out against adopting the policy, citing legal counsel that the school district’s current policies were in compliance with the new federal guidelines.
“I don’t know that my time and the district’s time is best suited to do this,” he said.
Ten days after the Wichita Falls board meeting, Paxton announced that he had filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration to protect a different North Texas school district.
“Harrold Independent School District fulfilled a responsibility to their community and adopted a bathroom policy that puts the safety of their students first,” he said in a press conference. “Unfortunately the policy placed them at odds with federal directives handed down earlier this month. That means the district is in the crosshairs of the Obama administration, which has maintained it will punish anyone who doesn’t comply with their orders.”
Harrold Superintendent David Thweatt said at the Wednesday press conference that the attorney general approached him about the policy, which his school board adopted Monday night.
The district adopted the policy, he said, out of concern for “safety, security and dignity of the children.”
Asked to clarify how many school districts the attorney general’s office approached about adopting the transgender policy, Paxton spokesman Marc Rylander did not provide a specific number.
“When the president unilaterally dictates education policy laced with threats of withdrawing federal funding to schools, our office engages with many concerned parents and school officials from around the state,” he said in an email.
He also did not respond directly to a question about whether all of the school districts the office approached are in the same general region, and would’ve fallen under the purview of the same federal court.
“We believe that the merits of this case are strong enough to win in any court in the United States,” he said.
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