ATLANTA (Reuters) - Inside a sunny classroom at a church decorated with rainbow flags, two transgender teenagers exploded into giggles during a dance break from math at Pride School Atlanta.
They are among a handful of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) youth who have found a haven at the school, which opened this fall at a time when the number of discrimination complaints from transgender students has been soaring across the nation.
The non-profit private Pride School Atlanta is seen as the first school in the American South focused on the LGBT community and one of few addressing similar concerns in the nation.
“They don’t have to fight for the right to exist here,” Christian Zsilavetz, the school’s transgender co-founder and director, said in an interview.
Court records and data reviewed by Reuters show a 12-fold surge in transgender student-related civil rights complaints lodged with the U.S. Department of Education - from seven in 2014 to 84 in 2016.
Many complaints involving bathroom and locker room access are going unaddressed following court developments, and there is uncertainty over the direction the administration of President-elect Donald Trump will take on the issue.
The inaction has shut down a process that increasingly had provided recourse to students fighting for access to facilities, names and pronouns matching their gender identities.
In recent months, federal authorities have suspended investigation or monitoring in 35 pending cases of alleged discrimination, court documents show. They are appealing restrictions that were imposed by a U.S. judge in Texas amid building backlash to the Obama administration’s policies promoting transgender bathroom rights.
Amid the wrangling, a transgender high school student in Volusia County, Florida, has been failing a gym class, often late or improperly dressed due to complications about where he must change clothes.
Despite having a mustache and goatee, he cannot change alongside the other boys in the locker room, said his mother, Jennifer, who asked to be identified by only her first name to protect her son’s identity. He is increasingly angry after already waiting for two years on a pending civil rights complaint.
“It’s hard to look at him and say, ‘Yeah, what you are going through is unfair. But there’s nothing we can do about it,’” she said.
At Pride School, where transgender students are the majority of its inaugural class, Josh Farabee, 14, feels comfortable showing off his spunky pink and lime hair and long mauve nails.
Under the gender-neutral restroom policy students voted for, he tried the men’s restrooms but discovered he still prefers the women’s.
The transgender student’s days at the school are a far cry from his former public school, where classmates called him “tranny” and “fag.”
“I don’t wake up scared to go to school,” he said.
Still, Josh and his mother, Stacia Oberweis, said his public school was relatively accommodating, with teachers adapting to his new name and “he” and “him” pronouns.
“The teachers can follow a policy but you can’t make the kids get on board,” Oberweis said. “And we all know kids are terrible to each other.”
Even opponents of transgender bathroom access see benefits in the Pride School model, which is serving a small group of full- and part-time students in a multi-age classroom.
“We might disagree with the content but the notion of local solutions and school choice ... is probably a good thing,” said Gary McCaleb, senior counsel at the conservative Alliance Defending Freedom.
Stories like Josh’s increasingly have alarmed officials at the U.S. Department of Education. In court records, the department says its research of transgender issues led to a 2013 landmark resolution of a civil rights complaint out of Arcadia, California. The agreement recognized a transgender boy’s right to use gender-specific facilities, including the boys’ cabin on a class trip.
The government soon saw an outpouring of complaints. The advocacy group Lambda Legal rewrote a brochure once focused on bullying protection.
“We have evolved to, ‘You absolutely should not be sent to the nurse’s bathroom,’” said Dru Levasseur, transgender rights project director for Lambda Legal, referring to the unisex bathrooms commonly offered in schools that block transgender students from their preferred bathroom.
As of late October, there were 32 open civil rights investigations into transgender discrimination complaints at elementary and secondary schools in 21 states, Education Department data shows. The agency did not disclose details.
One involves the student in Florida who filed his complaint alleging discrimination in his school district, said his lawyer, Asaf Orr, at the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
Now in his first year of high school, his mother says he feels stigmatized on the long walk to the media center to change clothes for physical education, which in his opinion was the best of the options offered to him. He once found himself locked out of the gym upon return.
His school district said in a statement that its policies are not discriminatory under current law and that it works with transgender students on a case-by-case basis.
“Things take time,” said Thomas Krever, chief executive officer of the Hetrick-Martin Institute helping LGBT youth in New York City. “This is time that this current generation of young people just doesn’t have.”
Reporting by Letitia Stein; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Bill Trott