A Chicago-area school district decided Wednesday night to allow a transgender student to use the girls’ locker room, settling a federal civil rights complaint that had sparked emotional reaction and put the district at the center of national debate over treatment of transgender children at school.
The move came one month after the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights found that Palatine Township High School District 211 broke the law when it denied the teenager access to the girls’ locker room. It was the first time that the federal government had found a school district in violation of Title IX because of transgender issues.
“We are grateful that the board and superintendent chose to come into full compliance with our nation’s civil rights laws,” said Catherine E. Lhamon, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for civil rights. “And we look forward to partnering with the district to assure that the terms of this agreement are fully and effectively implemented.”
The district agreed to the compromise just as the 30-day window for complying with federal officials was drawing to a close. District 211 Superintendent Daniel E. Cates had initially vowed to defy the federal findings, saying he needed to “protect the privacy of all students.” But doing so would have put the district at risk of a long legal fight and the loss of millions of federal dollars.
The Palatine school board voted 5 to 2 in favor of the agreement, which will allow the student to use the locker room “based on her representation” that she will not change out in the open but in private. The district agreed to set up privacy curtains in the locker room for the transgender student and any other student who wants to use them.
The school board meeting drew a standing-room-only audience of hundreds, many of whom were not happy with the board’s vote, the Chicago Tribune reported:
Some opponents carried signs with messages like, “Settling is losing.”
“Whether the young man wants to admit it or not … he is a man,” said another attendee.
Cates framed the compromise as a win for the school district because it does not give the student “unrestricted access,” as federal officials had initially sought, and because it applies only to this one individual — not to all transgender students.
“The agreement protects student privacy and will best serve our total school community,” he said in a statement. “From the outset, our public statements have consistently conveyed the District’s position that unrestricted access by transgender students in our open locker rooms is unacceptable because gender is not the same as anatomy.”
Federal officials interpret the agreement differently: For all intents and purposes, it applies to all transgender students, Lhamon said, because the district has promised not to discriminate on the basis of sex. And though the student has said she wants to change in private, the agreement does not require her to do so, Lhamon said.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which represents the student, said that the compromise falls short of their hopes. Limiting the agreement to one individual student instead of all transgender children is a “terrible mistake,” John Knight of the ACLU of Illinois said in a statement.
“Our client had the personal resources and parental support to fight for equal treatment and locker room access. Not every student does,” he said.
Knight said the ACLU believes the school district’s insistence that the student not be allowed full unrestricted access to locker rooms is still a violation of the law. And he said that the district “continues to demonstrate a wanton ignorance of the science of gender by persisting in drawing a false distinction between transgender persons’ gender and anatomy. Let me be clear. My client is a girl – full stop.”
In addition to installing privacy curtains, the district also agreed to arrange for the student to have access to locker rooms when her sports teams travel to other schools; establish a support team to ensure that the student has access to all district programs and activities; publish a revised notice of nondiscrimination on the basis of sex; and hire a consultant to assist the district in implementing the agreement.