Ideological struggle of government should not target vulnerable children

Sarah Bender Mar 5, 2017
Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

The inconsistent, impulsive power that is the Trump administration has started creating policies that have direct, harmful effects on the lives of children, and that is simply unacceptable.

On Feb. 22, the administration decided to withdraw the guidelines the Obama administration had created that allowed transgender students to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. According to Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Donald Trump believes that how transgender students are treated should be a “states’ rights issue.” While the guidance documents were not a law that compelled states to comply, they did invoke the prohibition of sex discrimination in schools as outlined in Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to ensure that the civil rights of transgender students are protected.

Now the decision of which bathroom these students can use is up to the states entirely. This does not necessarily mean that the states can’t choose to allow them to use the bathroom that corresponds with their identity, or that discrimination will immediately begin to appear. It does, however, mean that there is no federal standard that ensures their protection, or any nationwide repercussions for failing to treat them with the dignity that fellow human beings deserve. The fact that the White House is saying that there is a choice in this matter sends a shameful and dangerous message to those who may want to keep these children from being themselves in public spaces.

Conservatives cite a number of reasons for their reluctance to allow accommodating bathroom policies for transgender people. They warn that men, disguised as women, could sneak their way into women’s bathrooms and harass women. Most recently, they claimed that they need more time to “further and completely consider the legal issues involved,” despite the many years that protection against sex discrimination has already been applied to transgender people.

But the vast majority of their concerns aren’t based in fact — and there are other, proven statistics that are far more sobering.

The National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that 41.6 percent of transgender people attempt suicide — which is vastly higher than the national average of 4.6 percent. In 2011, the National Center of Transgender Equality found that 82 percent of transgender youth reported feeling unsafe at school, with 67 percent being bullied online, 64 percent having property stolen or destroyed, and 44 percent being physically abused in some way. With so many of these students at real risk, it’s clear that serious efforts to establish stronger protections are in order. But the government continues to fail them, choosing instead to cater to those who desire conformity.

The disregard for the children that rely on the public school system continued at the Conservative Political Action Conference when Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos joked that there was “no such thing as a free lunch” to an audience of activists and elected officials.

DeVos already has a bad record of undervaluing the impact that the public school system has on millions of children’s lives. In her home state of Michigan, she has spoken out against public schools and worked to expand the prominence of the outstandingly underperforming charter schools. She also tried to strip teacher unions of their influence. But the fact that the Secretary of Education seems unaware of the sheer number of children who rely on free school lunches across the country is both sad and concerning.

In 2014, 19 million children received a free lunch from school per day, while several million more qualified for reduced price meals. That’s 70 percent of all students who eat lunches at school (not including those who pack a lunch at home). With more than 23 million households receiving SNAP benefits that year, some schools found that, if a meal wasn’t offered at school one day, many students had no choice but to go without eating.

Of course, the money for these lunches comes from somewhere. But the important detail is where it’s going — to children who might be relying on the school to provide their one substantial meal of the day. It’s free for them, which in turn gives them the freedom to concentrate on their studies, and that makes all the difference.

And for DeVos — whose father made millions manufacturing auto parts and whose husband is heir to the Amway fortune — her statement isn’t necessarily true either.

Regardless of how states decide to shape policies regarding transgender students or where the money for free lunches is coming from, politicians should refrain from targeting the dependent, vulnerable youth in the country as they work to undermine their opponents’ political efforts. Innocent children have no place in this bitter ideological struggle. They should be worried about making friends and getting good grades, not whether their president and his staff are going to take away their right to use the bathroom or eat a meal.

These policies create a longer-term problem as well. If our country’s future leaders and thinkers are so busy concentrating on a full bladder or an empty stomach, are they really giving their education the full attention that it deserves? We need to invest in the future by making sure that students are being properly trained to make their mark on the world. Rather than having hardship thrown at them from yet another side, vulnerable students need protection from discrimination and deprivation, and the government should be doing its best to offer them safe environments where they can learn and grow.