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​White House advises schools on transgender bathroom access

A gender-neutral bathroom is seen at the University of California, Irvine in Irvine, California, in this file photo taken September 30, 2014.

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Last Updated May 13, 2016 9:26 AM EDT

WASHINGTON -- Public schools must permit transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity, according to an Obama administration directive issued amid a court fight between the federal government and North Carolina.

The guidance from leaders at the departments of Education and Justice says public schools are obligated to treat their transgender students in a way that matches their gender identity, even if their education records or identity documents indicate a different sex.

"There is no room in our schools for discrimination of any kind, including discrimination against transgender students on the basis of their sex," Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement.

The directive is contained in formal guidance sent to school districts Friday.

It does not impose any new legal requirements, but federal officials say it's mean to clarify school districts' obligations to educate students in nondiscriminatory environments. Educators have repeatedly sought guidance on how to comply with Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in institutions that receive federal funding, Education Secretary John B. King said in a statement.

"We must ensure that our young people know that whoever they are or wherever they come from, they have the opportunity to get a great education in an environment free from discrimination, harassment and violence," King said.

The text of the directive says that "a school must not treat a transgender student differently from the way it treats other students of the same gender identity."

The documents also address questions like how to handle educational records of transgender students, terminology, and how to address harassment. The recommendations are taken from policies that school districts, state education agencies, and high school athletics associations in the U.S. have already adopted to help ensure that transgender students have a supportive and nondiscriminatory school environment.

The move was cheered by Human Rights Campaign, a gay, lesbian and transgender civil rights organization, which called the guidelines "groundbreaking."

The guidance comes days after the Justice Department sued North Carolina over a new state law that says transgender people must use public bathrooms, showers and changing rooms that correspond to the sex on their birth certificate. The administration has said the law violates the Civil Rights Act.

"This is about a great deal more than bathrooms," Lynch said Monday. "This about the dignity and respect we afford our citizens."

The attorney general slammed what she described as the state's attempt to get into the business of "legislating identity." She said that state leaders have taken "a problem that does not exist" as basis for discrimination.

"It inflicts further indignity on a population that has already suffered its fair share," Lynch said.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory has argued that the state law is a "commonsense privacy policy" and that the Justice Department's position is "baseless and blatant overreach." His administration also filed a lawsuit Monday against the federal government.

McCrory said Monday he hopes other states will join North Carolina in court as it fights the Justice Department's position that the Civil Rights Act requires that transgender people be allowed to access facilities matching their gender identities.

"This is not a North Carolina issue. It is now a national issue," McCrory said.

Madeline Goss, a trans woman, told CBS News' Omar Villafranca she was just waiting to find out how the law will impact her life.

"We are not boogeymen. Trans women are women. Trans men are men. We are just here, trying to live our lives, and we want everyone to see that," Goss said.

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat running against McCrory for governor, has refused to defend the law and has called for its repeal. On Monday, he warned in a video that McCrory "is pouring gas on the fire that he lit" when he signed the measure.

The U.S. Education Department and other federal agencies could try to cut off money to North Carolina to force compliance.

The state university system risks losing more than $1.4 billion. An additional $800 million in federally backed loans for students who attend the public universities could also be in danger.