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An Oval Office Brawl Over Transgender Kids: 7 Things We Know About the DeVos-Sessions Showdown

By The 74 | February 23, 2017

Photo: Getty Images
Late Wednesday, the Trump administration withdrew federal protections allowing transgender students to use bathrooms corresponding to their gender identity. As Carolyn Phenicie reports, the Education and Justice departments’ “Dear Colleague” letter said the Obama administration’s guidance didn’t have a sufficient explanation for how Title IX encompasses gender identity. The departments also said there should be “due regard for the primary role of the states and local school districts in establishing educational policy.”
Speculation is now swirling around what impact this move will have on the pending Supreme Court case involving Gavin Grimm, a transgender teenager who went to court against his Virginia school district.
While reactions of student-rights advocates have focused largely on student safety, political pundits are also taking note of what they see as the first heated showdown between President Trump’s cabinet appointees, pitting Attorney General Jeff Sessions against Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.


Courtesy of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Politico, here are seven things we know about the first major Oval Office split over education:
  • The New York Timereported that the debate over the Obama-era bathroom guidance was accelerated due to pending court cases. The transgender directive quickly rose to the top of DeVos’s to-do list just two weeks into her tenure.
  • On Tuesday, The Washington Post was the first to report that DeVos was voicing objections to reversing the Obama administration guidance. Politico then reported that she was looking to slow down the process through a public notice and comment period. Multiple outlets then broke the news that she was refusing to go along with Sessions and opposed rescinding the Obama administration protections.
  • That same day, according to The New York Times, Sessions took his case straight to President Trump: “After getting nowhere, [Sessions] took his objection to the White House because he could not go forward without [DeVos’s] consent.”
  • Later that afternoon, Trump summoned DeVos, who repeated her opposition to rescinding the protections. Politico reported that her protests escalated into an Oval Office argument with Sessions in front of the president.
  • Trump then sided with Sessions, the Times reported, instructing DeVos to drop her opposition and ordering them to rescind the bathroom directive. “Ms. DeVos, faced with the alternative of resigning or defying the president, agreed to go along.”
  • But the argument did not end there. When the Education and Justice departments did finally release a joint letter rescinding the protections Wednesday, it emphasized the need to protect transgender students from bullying — language that, according to Politico and the Times, DeVos insisted on including. The final language reads in part: “Please note that this withdrawal of these guidance documents does not leave students without protections from discrimination, bullying or harassment. … All schools must ensure that all students, including LGBT students, are able to learn and thrive in a safe environment.”
  • DeVos also immediately issued her own statement and tweet, stressing that LGBT students must be protected and calling it a federal obligation to do so. “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.” Her statement continued: “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.”
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