CLARKSBURG, W.Va. — The American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia (ACLU-WV) is taking action after a transgender student at Liberty High School say he was encountered by an assistant principal in the school’s boys bathroom and barricaded there for several minutes.
Michael Critchfield, a sophomore at Liberty High School, said the incident happened during an after-school event before leaving on his way on a band trip on Nov. 27.
Students were told to use the restrooms before boarding the buses to Morgantown, and Critchfield chose to use the men’s restroom, as that is the gender with which he identifies.
“There were not many people there since it was after school and all that was there were probably sports teams, late buses and band students,” he said. “I had checked to see if anyone was at the urinal, and I looked to see if there was a bag there. If there was a bag, I would have walked in with my head down, or I would have waited until someone came out and then I would’ve gone in.”
At that time, the school’s Assistant Principal Lee Livengood entered the restroom and asked if anyone was still in the bathroom. When Critchfield responded “yes,” he said Mr. Livengood remained in the boys bathroom until he came out of the stall.
“He kept asking me why I was in there. (He said) I shouldn’t be in there because I am not a guy, and I told him I am a boy, I identify with this bathroom, and it is my legal right to use this restroom,” he said.
Critchfield said Livengood continued to harass and intimidate him, ultimately challenging him to use a urinal to prove that he was a boy.
“He was blocking the doorway so I couldn’t get out because if I tried to get out through the doorway he was in front of, he could’ve said that I hit him or something and got me in more trouble,” Critchfield said. “I was barricaded in the bathroom for three or four minutes, and then a band mom was coming down complaining that they could hear Mr. Livengood yelling at me in the bathroom from the cafeteria, from the hallways, and some could hear it from the band room so she came down to see what was wrong.”
At the end of the exchange, Mr. Livengood said to Critchfield, “Not going to lie. You freak me out,” in front of the other students and the chaperone,” Critchfield said.
ACLU-WV Executive Director Joseph Cohen said Liberty High School would receive a letter from the ACLU, requesting a meeting, outlining concerns and suggested remedies moving forward.
“I can’t believe we have to say this, but no child regardless of their gender identity should be subject of harassment and intimidation by a school official,” Cohen said. “West Virginia students deserve a safe environment to learn and grow as young adults, and the truth is, this is a matter of life and death.”
Harrison County School Superintendent Mark Manchin told the Charleston Gazette-Mail Livengood continues to work and has a right to due process. Manchin said an investigation is continuing.
“Clearly, the way we’ve handled this is inappropriate. Perhaps we need to do a better job about how we handle these situations. It’s a relatively new issue over the past several years that we’ve become more aware of and sensitive of,” Manchin told the newspaper.
More than 50 percent of trans male teens attempt suicide during their teenage years, Cohen said.
“West Virginia has to take LGBTQ issues seriously, and we need to implement regular, meaningful training for faculty and staff to create an inclusive and equitable learning environment,” he said. “The incident that Michael went through shows very clearly that our schools are not doing a good job training their administrators and teachers, and they’re not doing a good job protecting their students.”
Even more troubling, Cohen said this wasn’t the first incident of its kind Critchfield has faced at Liberty High School, though it was the most extreme and reprehensible.
“From the time Michael enrolled in that school, he’s been open with the administration that he is a boy, that he is a transgender boy. He’s always gone by the name Michael and used the pronouns he, him, his for the entire time he’s been in that school, yet there’s been pretty consistent incidents of teachers, administrators and school personnel intentionally misgendering him, intentionally using a name that he does not use, his so-called ‘dead name,’ and all of these create a hostile environment for trans kids,” he said.
Cohen said schools have a moral, ethical and legal obligation to use the correct pronouns, to use the correct gender assignments and to use the correct names for their students.
“And it can have really devastating consequences for individuals when they don’t,” he said. “So this is the most recent, the largest and the most reprehensible act the school has taken, but this has been an ongoing problem at the school.”
When hearing about this confrontation, Michael’s mom, Caroline Critchfield, had a very motherly reaction, feeling many of the same emotions as her teenage son.
“I was very upset, very angry, very hurt for my son that he had to endure this situation, and I wasn’t there to protect him, to advocate for him,” she said. “It just really hurt me so bad that someone who has administrative authority that’s supposed to provide safety for my child and all other children at the school did not do that.”
From misgendering to dead-naming her son, Caroline Critchfield said there are numerous actions of Livengood’s she feels were inappropriate for a school official.
“I’m just very mad and angry that he would do such a thing to my son or to any other child in the school, and I would like to see this changed because no one deserves to be misgendered or to be dead-named,” she said.
Cohen said the ACLU’s involvement came after a school employee who witnessed the events of Nov. 27 suggested the Critchfields contact the organization. His hope is to not only address this incident, but also to help create a better environment for all transgendered youths in West Virginia.
“Michael has an amazing support system at home. He’s got an amazing mother and father who advocate for him regularly, but we know there are other trans kids at that school and at schools across the state that are not in such a position to have such a supportive family so we know that what we really need is systematic change,” he said.
Thus, the ACLU-WV is seeking the following:
(1) Instituting best practice policies in the school system for dealing with trans students and trans issues;
(2) Training for teachers and administrations on dealing with trans issues;
(3) Resolution/discipline with regard to the assistant principal
For Michael Critchfield, however, he wants to see that no other transgender youths face the injustices that he’s had to.
“I’d love to see more doors open for other trans kids and people that don’t identify as straight or cisgendered, and I’d love to see actions taken to teach teachers on how to deal with students with different gender identities and sexualities,” he said. “And just have bathroom laws made to where it’s more safe for trans people to use the correct bathrooms they identify with, whether that be in schools, mostly or in public.”