Transgender students must be allowed to use the bathrooms that match their chosen gender identity, the federal government told all U.S. public school districts Friday.
The letter, signed by top officials of the Departments of Justice and Education, set guidelines for school leaders to ensure that no student is a victim of discrimination.
"There is no room in our schools for discrimination of any kind, including discrimination against transgender students on the basis of their sex," Attorney General Loretta Lynch said. Her statement was enclosed with the directives sent out to school officials nationwide Friday.
Under the U.S. political system, many educational issues are decided at the state level of government, and by local school districts that range widely in size.
"This guidance gives administrators, teachers and parents the tools they need to protect transgender students from peer harassment and to identify and address unjust school policies," Lynch said.
Public schools in the U.S. now are obligated to treat transgender students in a way that matches their chosen gender identity, even if education records or identity documents such as birth certificates indicate a different sex.
The directive does not have the force of law, but contains an implicit threat that schools' failure to abide by the federal government's interpretation of the law could face lawsuits or a loss of federal aid.
Questioned about the new guidelines at a news briefing Friday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said schools should see the new directives as "guidance," rather than a threat to their funding. "The foundation of this guidance," Earnest said, "is that people should not be discriminated against just because of who they are."
He called the guidance "specific, tangible, real world advice to administrators" and added, "It's to ensure that our schools are as inclusive and respectful and safe as can be."
No tests to verify
The government directed that schools may not require transgender students to obtain a medical diagnosis, undergo any medical treatment or present identity documents before treating them according to their chosen gender identity.
Friday's directive follows the federal administration's legal action against North Carolina, charging that the state's so-called bathroom law violates U.S. laws against discrimination.
The North Carolina law, enacted in March, requires transgender people using public bathroom facilities to choose those corresponding to their sex at birth, even if that differs from the gender with which they identify.