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Transgender student suit goes to Maine high court

Nicole Maines, (right),  her brother Jonas Maines, and mother, Kelly Maines were at a Maine high court hearing on a lawsuit against the school district. .

Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

Nicole Maines, (right), her brother Jonas Maines, and mother, Kelly Maines were at a Maine high court hearing on a lawsuit against the school district. .

BANGOR — Lawyers for a transgender girl and an elementary school that required the fifth-grader to use a staff bathroom rather than the girls restroom clashed before Maine’s highest court Wednesday on whether her rights were violated, a case that lays bare the difficult decisions facing school administrators.

The family and the Maine Human Rights Commission sued, but a judge in the state’s Superior Court ruled that the Orono school district acted within its discretion by requiring her to use a staff bathroom after there was a complaint about the student using the girls bathroom.

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After Wednesday’s hearing, the student, Nicole Maines, who is now 15 and attends a high school in southern Maine, said she would not wish her experience on anyone else and hopes that the justices hear her.

‘‘I hope they understood how important it is for students to be able to go to school and get an education and have fun and make friends, and not have to worry about being bullied by students or administration and be accepted for who they are,’’ the sophomore said.

At issue is whether the school violated the Maine Human Rights Act, which bars discrimination based on sex or sexual orientation. But state law also requires separate bathrooms for boys and girls in schools.

Melissa Hewey, lawyer for the school and school district, said that it should be up to the Legislature to clarify the issue.

‘‘To the extent that the people in Maine decide that this law in Maine should be changed, then that should be done,’’ she said. “But right now the law is what it is, and our school district didn’t violate it.”

The case goes beyond the bathroom issue to the broader question of what is best for transgender students, said Jennifer Levi of the Transgender Rights Project for Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders.

Policies about transgender adults are still evolving, and the thinking about how to handle children who identify with the gender opposite that they are born with is more complex.

Last year, the American Psychiatric Association removed ‘‘gender identity disorder’’ from its list of mental health ailments. And the Maine Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics filed a brief urging that transgender children be allowed to use the bathroom of their choice.

In the Maine case, Nicole Maines is a biological male who from an early age identified as a girl. School officials initially let her use the girls bathroom in her school, but the policy was altered after the grandfather of a fifth-grade boy complained to school officials. Maines’ attorneys said she felt that she had been singled out by having to use the staff bathroom.

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