It’s been seven months since a federal judge ruled that Drew Adams, a transgender student at Nease High School, can use the boys’ bathroom during his final year at the school.
Adams and his mother, Erica Adams Kasper, sued the St. Johns County School District over a policy that required Adams, who was born a girl and then underwent hormone treatment and surgery, to use gender neutral bathrooms on the school’s campus.
Since the July ruling, Adams has returned to life as a senior preparing for college. But the fight isn’t over.
The St. Johns County School Board decided to appeal the decision of U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. In doing so, some believe the case has a chance to be a watershed moment in advocates’ push for transgender rights, and it’s capturing national attention.
“I think we are really in a position to defend our win in the district court after trial and to not just continue to vindicate Drew’s rights, but set a precedent that will positively impact transgender students across three states,” said Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, a lawyer for the Lamba Legal team representing Adams. “We are talking about, not just students in Florida, but students in Georgia and Alabama, as well.”
If Adams loses the appeal, the case could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, setting up a potentially historic ruling.
Appeal moves forward
Adams, 18, was not available for an interview with The Record this week, but in a recent interview Adams said he’s just been trying to get his life back to normal after the high-profile case.
“Most days, the case does not actually affect me except for being able to use the correct bathroom now. I’m mostly just a normal kid trying to survive high school,
Meanwhile, while Adams takes exams, prepares college applications and practices jiu-jitsu, his case has been slowly moving along after the school board appealed the ruling.
“We weren’t necessarily shocked at the appeal, but certainly disappointed by their [the school board’s] decision to do so,” Gonzalez-Pagan said.
School board members Beverly Slough, Tommy Allen, Bill Mignon, Kelly Barrera and Patrick Canan either did not return a request for comment or declined to comment to The Record this week citing the ongoing litigation. St. Johns County Superintendent Tim Forson also did not respond to a request for comment, but Forson said previously the district disagrees “with the plaintiff’s interpretation of the law.”
“We believed our policy was legal and one which struck a balance of the rights of all students,” Forson said in a statement last year.
Adams came out as a transgender boy his freshman year and used the boys restroom at the school for about six weeks in 2015 until an anonymous complaint led to the administration requiring him to use gender-neutral bathrooms.
In his decision last year, Corrigan said the law was clearly on Adams’ side when it came to using the boys restroom.
“When confronted with something affecting our children that is new, outside of our experience, and contrary to gender norms we thought we understood, it is natural that parents want to protect their children,” Corrigan wrote. “But the evidence is that Drew Adams poses no threat to the privacy or safety of any of his fellow students. Rather, Drew Adams is just like every other student at Nease High School, a teenager coming of age in a complicated, uncertain and changing world. When it comes to his use of the bathroom, the law requires that he be treated like any other boy.”
The school’s policy, Corrigan found, violated both federal Title IX education laws and Adams’ rights under the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.
“The district court judge here was following precedent from the appellate court as well as really the general consensus that has been building around this issue nationally,” Gonzalez-Pagan said.
Adams’ case is the first time the question of transgender students’ bathroom access has come before the 11th Circuit, but NBC News reports that there are similar cases working their way through other federal courts.
Support and opposition
In recent weeks, Adams has been gaining support from around the country. The chief law enforcement officers of 20 states and the District of Columbia entered a brief on behalf of Adams in March. Florida’s Republican Attorney General Ashley Moody was not among the supporters. Later, more than 30 companies — including Microsoft, Apple and Google — signed an amicus brief sent to the 11th Circuit Court by the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBTQ advocacy group. The friend-of-the-court brief from Human Rights Campaign argues that upholding the school’s bathroom policy would adversely affect the companies’ “ability to build and maintain diverse and inclusive workplaces.”
“Employees may be reluctant to be transferred to a state in which your child might experience discrimination,” Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign, told NBC News.
There has also been continued opposition.
Alliance Defending Freedom — a conservative Christian nonprofit organization with the stated goal of advocating, training, and funding on the issues of “religious freedom, sanctity of life, and marriage and family” — recently filed a friend-of-the court brief on behalf of medical professionals and scientists arguing that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit should reverse the lower court decision in Adams v. School Board of St. Johns County.
“School policies should help students and protect all students’ privacy, not disregard the privacy rights of many. But if gender identity advocates have their way, St. Johns’ schools will be forced to violate students’ privacy and cooperate with high-risk, unproven medical treatments,” Alliance Defending Freedom Legal Counsel Christiana Holcomb wrote in a statement in January. “As the doctors point out in their brief, there is no evidence supporting gender affirmation treatments in the long term. The 11th Circuit should reverse the lower court decision that gives legal weight to unfounded scientific conclusions and instead prioritize the well-being of all children over political ideology.”
Holcomb told OneNewsNow she believes there’s a good chance the case could make it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which could resolve this issue once and for all.
The St. Johns County School Board is being represented by Tallahassee-based law firm Sniffen & Spellman, P.A. during the appeal process. According to the district, the firm’s services are being paid for by the district’s insurance company, Florida School Boards Insurance Trust. A representative from the firm was not able to be reached Friday.
After the school district filed its reply last week, Gonzalez-Pagan said his team is waiting for the case to be calendared by the court for argument. He expects it could happen late summer or early fall. When the case is finally heard, there will be a lot of people watching.
“Drew is in the process of finishing his senior year, being able to be fully treated as the boy that he is by the school and we look forward to just making sure that his win is protected at the appellate level,” Gonzalez-Pagan said.