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Mississippi superintendent backtracks on transgender policy

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Under fire from the governor and many Republican legislators, the Mississippi Department of Education now says it won't follow new federal guidance on use of bathrooms and locker rooms by transgender students.

State Superintendent Carey Wright made the announcement Wednesday in a brief statement, saying the department would "follow the lead of state leadership" and take no action until the state Board of Education discusses the situation.

Mississippi education officials had said Friday they would follow the guidance by federal authorities calling for transgender students to be treated consistently with their gender identity. They cited a need for a "safe and caring school environment."

The move comes as Republicans in other states have opposed the guidance, with some seeking to join legal challenges. In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam questioned the need for a special legislative session to block it, as some lawmakers have proposed. North Carolina's GOP chairman called on Democratic state Attorney General Roy Cooper to clarify his position on the guidance. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and Republican lawmakers in Arkansas also issued fresh criticisms.

The guidance isn't legally binding. Courts haven't definitively said whether federal civil rights laws protect transgender people. But schools that refuse to comply could lose federal education aid and face civil rights lawsuits from the government.

Mississippi's K-12 schools got more than $700 million in federal aid in the 2014-2015 school year. Federal dollars make up more than 30 percent of the budgets of districts serving the state's poorest populations.

State Board of Education Chairman John Kelly said the board will have a special meeting within the next two weeks to discuss the issue.

"Dr. Wright and I had a general discussion, but it was her decision to reverse this," Kelly said. He said his own position is "not important." Wright was out-of-state Wednesday at a reading conference in Alexandria, Virginia.

State board member Johnny Franklin said the nine board members had discussed Wright's position among themselves. Franklin said he'd gotten more than 10 phone calls opposing Wright's previous position and was "pleased" by Wright's move.

Franklin was education adviser to Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, who last week called for Mississippi to defy "federal coercion."

"As I said last week, the Mississippi Department of Education should not force the state's school children to participate in the Obama administration's social experiment," Bryant said in a statement. "I am encouraged by Dr. Wright's actions and hope she and the Board of Education ultimately see fit not to implement this outrageous directive.

Franklin said Bryant, who appointed him to the board in 2014, hadn't contacted him. But Wright's hand may have been forced by an increasing number of lawmakers calling for her to be fired.

On Wednesday, 27 Republican state senators among the GOP's 32-member supermajority wrote to Wright and the board calling for "swift and decisive action on this urgent matter."

Asserting that federal officials are trying to "blackmail" Mississippi, the senators wrote that, "Dr. Wright made the decision to usurp the board's authority and unilaterally issue the policy decision to acquiesce to the illegal demands of the federal government. For this, the superintendent must be held accountable."

That followed a letter Tuesday by 11 Republican House members asking Wright to reverse the department's position or resign.

"The policy of allowing boys or men into bathrooms and locker rooms with girls poses a threat to the safety and well-being of every school-aged girl in this state," the group wrote.

Rob Hill, state director of the Human Rights Campaign, says it's the state's tiny transgender population that's at risk of harm if Mississippi doesn't follow federal guidelines.

"Obviously she has been pressured by politicians, Mississippi lawmakers who are playing politics with the lives of Mississippi transgender students," Hill said.

He said he wants to talk to Board of Education members and other political leaders to allay fears.

In a new law allowing religious groups and some private businesses to deny services to gay and transgender people or unmarried parents, Mississippi lawmakers declared that people have an "immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth."

The ACLU and the Campaign for Southern Equality have filed federal court challenges to the law.

"Isolating transgender students, as well as threatening a government official who is asked to follow the law, sends, yet another message that it is acceptable to discriminate in Mississippi," American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi Executive Director Jennifer Riley-Collins said in a statement.

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