Originally published: March 30, 2014, 1:03 p.m.
Updated: March 31, 2014, 5:00 p.m.
UPDATE (March 31, 2014, 5:01 p.m.): Attorney says civil rights complaint possible; CPCC responds, says they are attempting ‘balancing act’
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A transgender student attending Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC) says she now feels unsafe and uncomfortable on the campus after a run-in with campus security on March 18. More than a week later, campus officials hadn’t yet responded to the student and one even allegedly told her she has “no legal rights.” Campus officials did eventually respond on Monday afternoon in an interview with qnotes.
Andraya Williams, 22, alleges CPCC security officers questioned her gender, escorted her off campus and suspended her from classes as she was exiting a restroom and heading to the campus’ library before a class that evening.
“I don’t understand why I was suspended and escorted off campus,” Williams says. “They were really just treating me like I had just robbed a bank or like I was a real criminal.”
Williams told her story to qnotes in an interview Friday afternoon. She and her attorney, Sarah Demarest of Charlotte’s LGBTQ Law Center, have also released written statements about the incident.
Detained and humiliated
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Local students, youth and activists say they will hold a protest in response to the treatment of Andraya Williams. The event is scheduled for this Friday, April 4, Noon, at the corner of Kings Dr. and Elizabeth Ave. Students began organizing on Sunday evening for the event on Facebook.
On March 18, Williams says she was exiting a women’s restroom in the Overcash academic and performing arts building when a female campus security officer stopped her and asked her if she is male or female. Williams said she was female, to which the officer laughed, she says.
The officer also asked for Williams’ student identification card, which Williams says she immediately provided. As she searched for her ID, Williams says she also called Demarest, who says she heard the rest of the incident unfold over the phone.
Six other officers, including the head of campus security, Paul Kitchen, were called as back-up, Williams says. Several officers questioned Williams and reviewed her student identification card.
“I immediately called my attorney’s cell and told her what was going on while I searched for my identification,” Williams’ statement reads. “My attorney told me to show my identification right away and I did. I then asked the officer ‘am I free to leave?’ because I did not understand why she was keeping me. Over and over she refused to tell me what was happening. A few moments later, the officer call for backup — even though I was not giving her a hard time about anything.
Williams’ statement continues, “Minutes later, approximately six security guards showed up including the head of security and surrounded me. In the next few minutes three different officers checked my identification. I’m not sure why so many officer checked my ID, but I felt like they were checking it to see if I was male or female.”
Unlike a driver’s license or other government ID, student ID cards do not include gender markers.
After detaining Williams for about 15 minutes, the officers then escorted her off campus. She alleges they told her she was suspended and that if she came back to campus the police would be called.
Williams says the situation was “humiliating and embarrassing.”
“There were other students in the building when it was happening,” she says. “It was just a really awkward situation. [Students] were looking and trying to figure out what was going on.”
For more than a week, Williams has attempted to address the discriminatory incident with a variety of campus officials, but said she was ignored or intimidated.
Williams says she met with Dean of Student Life Mark Helms on March 19. Helms, Williams maintains, said she was suspended for refusing to show her ID, but Williams and Demarest insist she did so immediately when the first officer asked for it. Williams also says Helms told her she must use gender-neutral restrooms, of which she is aware of only two on campus. Helms also allegedly told Williams that she needed to provide the school “medical proof” she is female.
“I’m confused because everyone involved in the situation knows I was suspended for being a transgender person using a female restroom and they put it on paper that I was suspended for not showing my ID,” Williams says.
Williams says Helms lifted her suspension, but later refused to give her information on how to file a complaint about the incident. A follow-up phone call the same day with CPCC Office of Equal Opportunity Director Leon Matthews also resulted in little action.
“After talking to the Dean, I called the Office of Equal Opportunity and the Director told me I have ‘no rights legally,’ because I am transgender and that if I file a complaint it could ‘cost someone a job,'” Williams recounts in a written statement, in which she also says she felt intimidated and pressured not to file the complaint. Williams also says she sent certified letters complaining about the incident to Helms, security director Paul Kitchen, Matthews and others. The letters were received, but she has gotten no response.
Reached late Friday afternoon and when asked for an incident report, Kitchen deferred all questions to Helms.
“[Helms is] the one who’s handling this incident,” Kitchen said.
Neither Helms nor Matthews were available late Friday afternoon and neither immediately returned messages left for them.
When reached Monday morning, Helms told qnotes he couldn’t comment.
“This is a student incident and I’m just not at liberty to discuss issues related to students,” Helms said.
When asked if he could answer general questions on campus policy, Helms replied, “At this point, I’m not going to do that.”
Helms directed the newspaper to Jeff Lowrance, CPCC’s public information officer.
On Monday afternoon, Lowrance denied that Williams had been suspended and said the school is attempting a “balancing act” between the rights of transgender students and others.
Violation of rights
Demarest, whose non-profit law center assists LGBT residents in Charlotte and across the state, says the school violated her client’s due process rights. Further, Demarest says CPCC’s actions were unlawful and constitute a violation of Title IX, a federal law that bans discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs activities. Federal courts and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, she says, have held that unlawful sex discrimination extends to gender stereotyping.
Williams says she’s frustrated that administrators are not taking her complaints seriously.
“I’m frustrated because it seems like no one’s doing anything about it,” she says. “They are just giving me the run around and passing me from person to person instead of handling the situation.”
Demarest and Williams say the school should offer Williams a formal written apology, permit Williams to use the restroom consistent with her gender identity and provide new trainings for all faculty, staff and contracted personnel like security officers. Employees, they say, should understand the rights of all students under Title IX, including transgender students.
They also want the school to update its non-discrimination and harassment policies. Currently the policies do not include sexual orientation or gender identity, according to a version posted online and last updated in 2010.
Other students and organizations have recently attempted to address LGBT inclusion efforts on the Central Piedmont campus. The school has an LGBT student group, but few, if any, concrete policies or practices safeguarding LGBT student rights.
Shane Windmeyer, executive director of the Charlotte-based national LGBT student advocacy group Campus Pride, says schools like CPCC are obligated to protect all of their students. Windmeyer’s group keeps a database of colleges and universities which have adopted transgender-inclusive protections and polices. More than 700 schools have already done so.
“There needs to be a larger commitment to LGBT students and particularly transgender students at CPCC,” says Windmeyer, who recently spoke to the campus’ LGBT student group.
Windmeyer also says campus officials should have been more proactive, before an incident like that faced by Williams occurred.
“It took a transgender student to have a really awful experience and not feeling safe from a security officer to have this conversation,” says Windmeyer. “Now, they have to figure out what are students’ needs and concerns and how Central Piedmont can help this student feel supported and feel safe again. That’s a real challenge.”
Williams, who is studying music and has attended CPCC off and on since 2009, hopes to complete enough credits to ultimately transfer to a four-year university. But, she says being forced off-campus caused her to miss an evening class, for which she received no credit for an important assignment due that day. She doesn’t want her grades to suffer because of the incident, she says.
Williams insists that she deserves to attend school in a safe environment.
“Until now, I’ve never been discriminated against because I’m transgender,” Williams says. “I don’t feel 100 percent comfortable going back to school. Until they change their policies, there could be another situation.”
Williams and Demarest say they will continue to raise awareness of the incident until CPCC officials respond, apologize and undertake efforts to make the campus safer.
On Monday, Demarest said she and Williams would consider filing a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
[Ed. Note — In the first version of this story, the original date of the first incident between Williams and CPCC security was mistakenly reported as March 19. The incident actually occurred on Tuesday, March 18. The story has been updated. We regret this error.]