Until he started sounding off about bathroom access for transgender students, Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison maintained a solid relationship with the county school system. But after a series of news reports in which Harrison did everything from comparing a transgender student to a child with head lice to identifying the school that drew his ire by not informing parents that their children were using the same facilities as transgender students, Wake County school board chairman Tom Benton is "disturbed."
"The part of it that disturbs me the most is that he identified the school," Benton says, adding that doing so "has led to the possible identification of students whose confidentiality is protected by law and protected ethically. What we have told him and his [school resource officers] consistently and constantly is that this is not an allegation of criminal activity, so your SRO roles are to report this to the principal. Other than that, he has no business telling us what our head lice or bathroom policy is."
The Harrison saga began last month when a transgender student at West Millbrook Middle School was authorized to use the girls' bathroom, prompting the sheriff to ask for a consistent policy throughout the district. Superintendent Jim Merrill told the SROs—Harrison's deputies—that it was, essentially, up to the school administrators to make a ruling.
Harrison wasn't satisfied. He took his case to WRAL and, during an on-air interview, threatened to pull SROs from the schools. The sheriff also outed the school that the student in question attends. (On Monday, he told the INDY this was a mistake: "I should not have told y'all what school it was.")
The INDY made a public-records request last Monday for Harrison's emails. The sheriff called that afternoon to berate a reporter, claiming that this was not a "political issue" and saying that this newspaper was what's wrong with the world. In the only email that records request turned up, Harrison likened the protocol for informing parents about transgender students using the bathroom that conforms to their gender identity to informing them of a head lice outbreak.
The backlash was swift. After the INDY published two stories on the imbroglio last week, several Wake County parents reached out to voice their dismay.
"He made it seem like he talked to parents of the school's children," says one parent about his conversation with Harrison. "That obviously didn't happen, because he couldn't do that without the prior consent of the principal. When I asked him, he said he went down to Bojangles' and asked people there if they would have a problem [with not being informed], and they said they would."
Another parent told the INDY that, in a phone conversation with Harrison, the sheriff "kept trying to show me that it wasn't political," while admitting he would "be on robocalls in the fall" for the GOP.
Therein lies the root issue: the politicization of education. Harrison, a Republican, is demanding that school board members take a position a month before all nine of their seats are up for election. Most school board members have remained mum, happy to leave the decision in the hands of principals despite a federal order allowing transgender students to use the bathroom consistent with their gender identities.
Harrison isn't up for reelection until 2018, but Benton nonetheless believes he's trying to make political hay.
"If it's not politically motivated, why has he decided to go so public about it the month before the election, when there were ongoing discussions between our staffs, including his attorney and our attorney?" Benton asks.
In an interview, Harrison says he spoke out because he didn't want his SROs to be confused about which facilities transgender students should be permitted to use.
"If Cary doesn't allow a transgender student into the dressing room and Garner does, and I send my SRO from Cary to Garner, and he sees someone who looks like a boy coming out, or someone sees the student coming out of the dressing room and someone points and says, 'You see that boy coming out of the dressing room?' That's our job," Harrison says. "And then we go to the principal, but we just can't get let that go, because how do we know that something didn't happen in that dressing room? ... I think that if they just make a policy—and most of the parents I've talked to agree with me—if they have a policy, wouldn't be a problem."
"There was never an issue with our children before HB 2 came along," says Hope Tyler, the mother of a transgender Wake County student. "So for the sheriff to be discussing transgender children with people who have no idea what they are talking about is not only absurd, but it's completely irresponsible. If he wants to pull his officers for fear of being sued, that shows how much he understands. You train your officers [to] communicate with the parents and you keep those officers in those schools. Our children must be protected by these officers every day and not worry about the potty police questioning where they just pissed."
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Potty Police"