Attorney: Civil rights complaint possible after harassment of transgender student
Updated: April 3, 2014 at 8:44 am
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The attorney for a transgender student who claims she was harassed and detained by security officers at Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC) said today that she and the student are considering filing a civil rights complaint as school officials responded publicly to the claims of discrimination.
Attorney Sarah Demarest represents CPCC student Andraya Williams, who recounted her experience with campus security on Friday. Williams said that on March 18 CPCC security officers questioned her gender, escorted her off campus and suspended her from classes as she was exiting a restroom and heading to the campus’ library before a class that evening.
For more than a week, Williams and Demarest have attempted addressing the incident with school officials. They allege that Williams has been ignored or has felt pressured not to file a complaint and that one official even told Williams she has “no legal rights.”
“We are wanting to give CPCC time to take action on their own, but if they are unwilling, we are prepared to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights,” Demarest said Monday.
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CPCC officials were initially reluctant to discuss the incident. When reached on Friday, campus security director Paul Kitchen deferred all questions to Dean of Student Life Mark Helms. On Monday morning, Helms also declined to comment and deferred questions to CPCC Public Information Officer Jeff Lowrance.
On Monday afternoon, Lowrance told qnotes that Williams was never suspended and is currently a student in good standing. Demarest, however, insists security officers told Williams she was suspended on March 18 and could not come back to campus.
“I heard them say you are being suspended and you cannot return to campus until further notice,” said Demarest, who heard most of the conversations between Williams and the six security officers, including Kitchen, who confronted her on March 18.
The alleged suspension was later lifted when Williams met with Helms on March 19. But, Williams said neither Helms nor campus equal opportunity officer Leon Matthews were willing to help her file a complaint. Matthews, in particular, alleged Williams, pressured her not to file the complaint and told her she has “no legal rights.”
Lowrance denied that campus officials attempted to stop Williams from filing a complaint. He said the school has sent Williams a letter, dated March 27, that outlines how Williams can file a grievance and access mediation.
Demarest and Williams said neither of them have received a letter from the school.
CPCC attempting ‘balancing act’
Lowrance says CPCC is currently striking a “balancing act” between the rights of transgender students and other students.
“CPCC, as well as lots of other colleges and universities in the country, are wrestling with this issue of providing accommodations for transgender students and trying to meet their needs,” Lowrance said. “Truly, it is a balancing act trying to meet their needs and providing for the needs of other students.”
Currently, CPCC has no concrete policies or practices to safeguard the rights of LGBT, and, in particular, transgender, students. In fact, Lowrance said it is currently CPCC’s expectation that transgender students use only the restrooms that correspond to the students’ assigned birth gender or restrooms that are non-gender-specific.
“At this time, that is the best answer to balance the needs of all students,” said Lowrance. “We have to balance what our other students are feeling. We have female students who may not be comfortable with a transgender student using the same facilities.”
Lowrance also said the school is obligated to investigate potential abuses.
“In this situation apparently, we had a security officer who suspected we had a male going into a female restroom and in that situation, the security officer definitely has to investigate,” said Lowrance. “If it was ever found out that campus security had a suspicion and did not act on it and led to a student being assaulted or injured, then the college would have a lot to answer for.”
Currently, however, Lowrance said he was unaware of any past complaints about transgender students’ restroom use.
Lowrance also said the school currently has some non-gender-specific restrooms, but could not name how many or where they are located. He said plans for new buildings call for including more private restrooms, which may be used by students for a variety of privacy concerns.
Until then, transgender students will continue to have limited options.
Demarest said CPCC’s expectation is discriminatory and dangerous, noting significantly greater safety concerns for transgender students who are forced to use restrooms that do not conform to their current gender identity or expression.
More importantly, however, Demarest insisted that CPCC has violated Williams’ civil rights, calling CPCC’s actions “unlawful harassment” and a “violation of her due process rights and rights under Title IX,” a federal law that forbids gender-based discrimination.
“CPCC’s decision to apprehend [Ms. Williams] in the restroom was based on their visual assessment of her gender,” said Demarest. “While CPCC is allowed to maintain sex-segregated facilities for male and female students, they decided that Ms. Williams fell outside both categories and treated her differently than other students. Furthermore, the differential treatment occurred in front of other students, highlighting to her peers that she does not conform to gender stereotypes and outing her as transgender.”
Demarest said CPCC needs to review their polices and practices immediately.
“There are many transgender students who need to know what their rights are and need to know how it is they are supposed to navigate this issue,” said Demarest. “The way CPCC has handled this situation was inadequate and allowed [Williams] to be humiliated and feeling like she was without recourse.”
CPCC does not currently include sexual orientation or gender identity in its non-discrimination and anti-harassment policies.
A student-organized protest is currently scheduled for this Friday, Noon, at the corner of Elizabeth Ave. and Kings Dr. at CPCC’s Central Campus.
[Ed. Note — In the first version of this story, the original date of the first incident between Williams and CPCC security was mistakenly reported as March 19. The incident actually occurred on Tuesday, March 18. The story has been updated. We regret this error.]
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About the author: Matt Comer was the editor of QNotes, first hired to serve in the role in October 2007, with his tenure ending August 23, 2015.