A 15-year-old transgender boy in West Virginia is alleging that his assistant principal confronted him while he was in a bathroom stall, challenging him to “come out here and use the urinal” to prove that he was really a boy.
That allegation and others are detailed in a Dec. 17 letter from the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia addressed to Dr. Mark A. Manchin, superintendent of Harrison County Schools.
According to the ACLU-WV’s letter, the transgender boy—Michael Critchfield—was using an otherwise unoccupied boys’ restroom in Liberty High School before a late November band trip when Assistant Principal Lee Livengood allegedly entered and asked why he was there.
Critchfield, according to the ACLU-WV, explained that he was a boy and that the bathroom was empty. But that was when the assistant principal allegedly issued his challenge to “use the urinal.” The ACLU-WV alleges that the assistant principal then blocked the door to the restroom to prevent Critchfield from leaving.
“Mr. Livengood continued to berate Michael, his voice rising, asking Michael what would happen if another boy thought Michael was checking him out,” the letter continues. “Michael’s classmates later told him they could hear Mr. Livengood yelling from outside the restroom in the hallway and cafeteria.”
The assistant principal allegedly misgendered the boy throughout the conversation by referring to him with female pronouns, and concluded by saying: “I’m not going to lie. You freak me out.”
The ACLU-WV says in its letter that Michael “began crying uncontrollably” after the alleged encounter, and went on to experience “severe anxiety” that only added to the preexisting stress of being repeatedly misgendered by several teachers at his school.
“I think that there’s a cultural problem at the school,” ACLU-WV director Joseph Cohen told The Daily Beast. “This was not just one incident of a bad act by a bad actor.”
Dr. Manchin did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment. Cohen told The Daily Beast that the ACLU-WV and the Critchfield family have yet to sit down with the superintendent, but has heard through local media that Livengood may be facing a brief suspension.
West Virginia MetroNews confirmed the suspension on Tuesday. Manchin told the outlet that Livengood would be suspended without pay until 2019.
“I was able to confirm the interaction with Mr. Livengood and that indeed he acted inappropriately,” Manchin told the outlet. “We need to address it and we will address it.”
According to the ACLU-WV letter, Critchfield and his parents told Liberty High School administrators in a meeting prior to his freshman year that he is a transgender boy whose name is Michael and that he uses boys’ bathrooms. He was allegedly told that he could not use the boys’ restroom—and he says that he continues to be misgendered at the school, including in intercom announcements that refer to him by his birth name.
“At the end of the day, all I want is to feel welcome and safe in my school,” Critchfield said in a press release. “Mr. Livengood’s behavior in the bathroom that day was terrifying and no student deserves that kind of treatment. I’m telling my story so that high school doesn’t have to be a scary place for kids like me.”
Despite the shocking nature of the allegations, the ACLU-WV is not yet filing a lawsuit, pushing instead for the school district to discipline Livengood, institute transgender-inclusive training for staff, and create new best practice policies for LGBT students.
“We don’t think that litigation is good for anybody in this case,” Cohen told The Daily Beast. “We expect and trust that the district—when they meet with us—will meet with open ears, and that they will want to strive to make Liberty High School and the Harrison County School District a model for all the other schools in the state on what an inclusive and equitable learning environment actually is. So, that is our goal.”
Cohen told The Daily Beast that Critchfield experienced a panic attack when he came back to school after the bathroom incident.
The letter alleges that Critchfield’s parents contacted Liberty High School administrators “within 24 hours following the event” but, despite assurances “that an investigation would take place,” they went several weeks without receiving an update.
The incident, Cohen says, should draw special attention to the mental health needs of transgender male youth, who are especially likely to attempt suicide according to a recent study in the journal Pediatrics.
“More than 50 percent of male trans youth attempt suicide,” Cohen told The Daily Beast. “We need to look out for the interests, the safety, health, the mental wellbeing of these students because it’s absolute life-or-death issue.”