Even down the hall, the other students could hear the assistant principal screaming at the transgender student, mockingly demanding that Michael Critchfield use the urinal to “prove that he was a boy.”
On a post-Thanksgiving band trip just after school, Michael faced the uncomfortable proposition of a 45-minute school bus ride in a stiff band uniform with a full bladder. So the drummer darted to the boys' bathroom and checked to make sure no one was inside.
Michael, a 15-year-old at Liberty High School in Clarksburg, W.Va., who identifies as male, was hoping to use the facilities without getting into a confrontation or a complicated discussion about gender identity and who should be allowed to use which bathroom.
But when he came out of the stall, Assistant Principal Lee Livengood was blocking the bathroom’s exit, according to a letter written to officials at Harrison County Schools by the West Virginia ACLU.
The administrator “kept raising his voice and saying, ‘Why are you in this bathroom? You shouldn’t be here,’ ” Michael told HuffPost.
The boy tried to explain that he identifies as male — but he was continually interrupted by the irate official.
If he was a boy, he should prove it, the assistant principal said, according to the ACLU’s letter. “Come out here and use the urinal.”
“ ‘If you can’t use this urinal, then you shouldn’t be in here,’ ” Livengood shouted, according to Michael. “ ‘What if a student said you were checking them out in here?’ ”
A parent chaperoning the band trip heard the commotion and rushed to the bathroom. Michael was in tears.
Livengood, who could not be reached for comment, dismissed the incident as a misunderstanding, according to the ACLU’s letter, but the abuse continued.
“I wasn’t trying to be rude or anything,” Livengood reportedly said. “I’m not going to lie: You freak me out.”
The school district has placed Livengood on paid suspension while it investigates.
The incident in the boys' bathroom comes amid a complex debate about government protections for transgender people, as other authorities have tried to codify the conditions under which a person can use a particular lavatory.
Michael’s family enlisted the help of the ACLU after they spoke with members of the administration and an assistant superintendent but received no follow-up. Meanwhile, they said, “Mr. Livengood has continued to be at the school daily.”
Now, the organization is planning to sit down with Harrison County Schools Superintendent Mark Manchin.
President Trump’s administration has explored changing how transgender people are identified and protected under the law, affecting the legal status of some 1.4 million Americans.
Public bathrooms have been at the center of a debate about gender identity in the United States. North Carolina took a public beating over its 2016 law that said people could use only the bathroom of the gender written on their birth certificate.
As The Washington Post’s Amber Phillips wrote, supporting the law arguably cost GOP Gov. Pat McCrory his job. PayPal and Bruce Springsteen decided not to do business in the state, Hollywood stopped filming there and the NBA opted to pull its All-Star Game from Charlotte, the state’s largest city, costing the city an estimated $100 million in tourism revenue.
The state repealed most of the controversial law in 2017, but the controversy, Phillips and Mark Berman wrote, was a cautionary tale for legislators in nearly a dozen other states where “bathroom bills” were being considered.
But antipathy toward transgender people still exists, as Michael has long known.
Harrison County School District, which educates about 11,000 students, finds itself in the glare of a harsh national spotlight as it tries to figure out what to do with the assistant principal who reduced Michael to tears.
Manchin told The Washington Post that because no one else witnessed the entire event, it is essentially the student’s word against the assistant principal’s — and the administrator has denied saying the most incendiary statements.
“I had him in yesterday, and he did confront the boy in the restroom, that indeed is true,” Manchin said. “It was inappropriate. And he is in the process of being disciplined.”
Both the school and the state have anti-bullying policies, Manchin said. Livengood, like other administrators, has received diversity training and will receive more in light of this controversy.
Although Manchin said he believes the event has been dramatized in the retelling, he has stressed to his administrators to use “just common sense” in dealing with students from all backgrounds.
But Michael’s parents said the issue is bigger than one administrator losing his cool.
Before Michael’s freshman year, the ACLU’s letter said, his parents spoke with Liberty High administrators, informing them “that Michael was a transgender boy, that he expected to be referred to by the name Michael, that his pronouns were he, his, and him, and that he planned to use the boys' restroom.”
Administrators balked, the letter said. He was told he couldn’t use the boys' restroom, despite crafting a letter to his teachers about why he wanted to be treated “in accordance with the gender with which he identifies.”
Manchin said he was “still trying to corroborate” other claims made by Michael and his parents but that his school district has made accommodations for “a number of transgender students. We embrace diversity.”
Many of Michael’s teachers continue to use incorrect pronouns, and some don’t refer to him as “Michael” at all. Some school employees call him by the wrong name over the intercom when announcements are made “causing Michael stress, embarrassment and anxiety.” Liberty High, his parents said, “has not been a safe and welcoming environment” for their child.
In the ACLU’s news release, Michael said his end goal is to feel safe at school — and to ensure that other bathroom-checking students don’t face similar treatment.
“Mr. Livengood’s behavior in the bathroom that day was terrifying, and no student deserves that kind of treatment,” he said. “I’m telling my story so that high school doesn’t have to be a scary place for kids like me.”