Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is reported to have been initially opposed to the Trump administration’s decision to roll back federal guidelines specifying that transgender students have the right to use public school restrooms that match their gender identity — but that isn’t what she said in a statement she issued defending it. Administration officials said late Wednesday that they are ordering the nation’s public schools to disregard guidance issued by the Obama administration saying that prohibiting transgender students from using facilities that align with their gender identity violates federal anti-discrimination laws.
Earlier Wednesday, there were reports that DeVos had opposed the move. The Washington Post said she was at odds with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was intent on reversing the guidance. The New York Times reported that Sessions went to President Trump about the dispute, and he told DeVos he wanted her to go along. And in her first big policy move, she did. During the day, White House press secretary Sean Spicer denied that DeVos and Sessions were at odds over the decision, saying:
“There’s no daylight between anybody — between the president, between any of the secretaries. I think there’s been some discussion between the timing of the issuance and recommendations — or between the exact wording. But as far as the conclusions go, I’ve made this clear and the president’s made it clear throughout the campaign that he is a firm believer of states’ rights and that certain issues like this are not best dealt with at the federal level.”
Asked specifically about whether DeVos agreed with the decision, he said, “Yes, 100 percent.” Later DeVos issued a statement (see text in full below) defending the administration’s action, saying:
“This is an issue best solved at the state and local level. Schools, communities, and families can find — and in many cases have found — solutions that protect all students.”
She began the statement with an apparent effort to express concern for the safety of all students, presumably including transgender students, the majority of whom feel unsafe at school, according to surveys. She said:
“We have a responsibility to protect every student in America and ensure that they have the freedom to learn and thrive in a safe and trusted environment. This is not merely a federal mandate, but a moral obligation no individual, school, district or state can abdicate. At my direction, the Department’s Office for Civil Rights remains committed to investigating all claims of discrimination, bullying and harassment against those who are most vulnerable in our schools.”
She even tweeted the message:
I consider protecting all students, including #LGBTQ students, not only a key priority for the Department, but for every school in America.
— Betsy DeVos (@BetsyDeVosED) February 23, 2017
But her critics weren’t buying it. Here are some tweets about her statement and decision to go along with the administration’s action:
#DeVos was given choice about #LGBTQ restrictions- go along or resign. She went along and betrayed kids she is supposed to care for. https://t.co/62q08dmAOQ — ((Wendy McClelland)) (@wendyweb47) February 23, 2017
@BetsyDeVos claims she supports #trans students but signed off. Spider also says there was no conflict. Don’t defend #Devos. https://t.co/fzXWVf4UsX — J Michael Denton (@JMichaelDenton) February 23, 2017
Actions speak louder than words, & your actions today will help ensure that school environments remain unsafe for transgender students. https://t.co/vLhBeYrUbZ
— Ben Spielberg (@BenSpielberg) February 23, 2017
During her Jan. 17 confirmation hearing before the Senate Education Committee, DeVos was questioned by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who asked her about her family’s donations to anti-gay groups. “Mrs. DeVos, your family has a long history of supporting anti-LGBT causes including donating millions of dollars to groups that push conversion therapy, the practice of trying to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity,” Franken said. DeVos, whose friends have said she supports gay rights, denied supporting conversion therapy:
“Senator Franken, I’ve never believed in that. First of all, let me say I fully embrace equality and I believe in the innate value of every single human being and that all students, no matter their age, should be able to attend a school and feel safe and be free of discrimination. So let’s start there and let me just say that your characterization of our contributions I don’t think accurately reflects those of my family. I would hope you wouldn’t include other family members beyond my core family.”
Here’s the complete statement that DeVos issued on Wednesday about the Trump administration’s decision:
We have a responsibility to protect every student in America and ensure that they have the freedom to learn and thrive in a safe and trusted environment. This is not merely a federal mandate, but a moral obligation no individual, school, district or state can abdicate. At my direction, the Department’s Office for Civil Rights remains committed to investigating all claims of discrimination, bullying and harassment against those who are most vulnerable in our schools. The guidance issued by the previous administration has given rise to several legal questions. As a result, a federal court in August 2016 issued a nationwide injunction barring the Department from enforcing a portion of its application. Since that time, the Department has not enforced that part of the guidance, thus there is no immediate impact to students by rescinding this guidance. This is an issue best solved at the state and local level. Schools, communities, and families can find — and in many cases have found — solutions that protect all students. I have dedicated my career to advocating for and fighting on behalf of students, and as Secretary of Education, I consider protecting all students, including LGBTQ students, not only a key priority for the Department, but for every school in America. We owe all students a commitment to ensure they have access to a learning environment that is free of discrimination, bullying and harassment. The new guidance can be found here.