BILLINGS — When the Trump administration on Wednesday flushed Obama-era education guidance that said schools should let transgender students use the bathroom of their choice, it didn't really change much in Montana.
The initial guidance, which is not legally binding, was quickly challenged in court by states including Montana, where the suit pitted Attorney General Tim Fox against then Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau. The guidance was put on hold by a federal judge in August, and the Trump retraction renders the suit moot.
That leaves individual Montana school districts in charge of setting their own policies — which new Superintendent Elsie Arntzen doesn't plan to tinker with.
"The superintendent supports local control and allowing Montana school districts to decide what policies work best for their communities and students," said Office of Public Instruction spokesman Dylan Klapmeier in an emailed statement.
Even with the guidance in place, it was ultimately up to school districts to formulate their own Title IX policies, a previous OPI spokeswoman said.
A Trump spokesman said the issue should be decided at the state level, and newly appointed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos echoed the sentiment.
"This is an issue best solved at the state and local level," she said in a statement released Wednesday. "Schools, communities, and families can find — and in many cases have found — solutions that protect all students."
At the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday, she called the Obama guidance a "one-size-fits-all, top-down approach."
While the Obama announcement sparked national criticism from conservative groups, there was little public outcry in Montana. Neither School District 2 nor Montana State University Billings said they heard concerns from parents.
There's no district-by-district accounting of Montana policies on gender and bathroom use, but officials in Billings, the state's largest district, said the issue is handled on a case-by-case basis, according to Superintendent Terry Bouck.
“There have been some accommodations for transgender students,” in the past, he said shortly after the Obama guidance was issued. “We really strive to make our schools a safe and constructive environment for our kids. This isn’t a new thing.”
Bouck declined to go into detail on such accommodations.
“When we deal with accommodations, they’re done in a confidential way,” he said. “We don’t feel it’s responsible or legal to discuss it in the news.”
At MSUB, officials had been discussing bathroom policy since last fall, according to vice chancellor for student affairs Joe Oravecz. The school has identified 11 single-stall bathrooms between the MSUB and City College campus that will be designated as “inclusive bathrooms.”
“We’re taking the approach that a single-stall inclusive bathroom means use for everyone,” he previously said, from students of either gender to parents with children. The school planed to have the bathrooms ready this fall.
Changes to include transgender students as a protected class in discrimination policies have been contentious around Montana in recent years. In 2015, changes in Great Falls drew praise and criticism. The same year, a proposed vote on a Montana High School Association policy that would have allowed Montana teens who were born male but identify as female to compete in girls’ events and vice versa was nixed after group officials decided there wasn’t enough support among member schools.
A common line of argument among supporters of defining bathroom access by birth gender points to the possibility of men assaulting women in women’s bathrooms. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center and other groups have disputed such claims, pointing to a lack of evidence detailing such assaults.
Groups like the National Association of Secondary School Principals have praised the directive, citing an increased risk of suicide and destructive behaviors among transgender students.