By Duaa Eldeib
Illinois' largest high school district violated federal law by barring a transgender student from using the girls' locker room, authorities declared Monday.
The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights spent nearly two years investigating Palatine-based Township High School District 211 and found "a preponderance of evidence" that school officials did not comply with Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.
The student, who has identified as a girl for a number of years, filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights in late 2013 after she was denied unrestricted access to the girls' locker room. District and federal officials negotiated for months, and a solution appeared imminent as recently as last week, when the district put up privacy curtains in the locker room.
But talks stalled after school officials said the student would be required to use the private area, as opposed to offering her a choice to use it. Although the student said she intends to use the private area or a locker room bathroom stall to change, the stipulation constitutes "blatant discrimination," said John Knight, director of the LGBT and AIDS Project at ACLU of Illinois, which is representing the student.
"It's not voluntary, it's mandatory for her," Knight said. "It's one thing to say to all the girls, 'You can choose if you want some extra privacy,' but it's another thing to say, 'You, and you alone, must use them.' That sends a pretty strong signal to her that she's not accepted and the district does not see her as girl."
For the student at the center of the federal complaint and all other transgender students at the district's five high schools, the staff changes their names, genders and pronouns on school records. Transgender students also are allowed to use the bathrooms of their identified gender and play on the sports team of that gender, school officials said.
But officials drew the line at the locker room, citing the privacy rights of the other 12,000-plus students in the district. As a compromise, the district installed four privacy curtains in unused areas of the locker room and another one around the shower, but because the district would compel the student to use them, federal officials deemed the solution insufficient.
The dispute highlights a controversy that a growing number of school districts face as they struggle with an issue that few parents of today's teens encountered. The Department of Education has settled two similar allegations of discrimination of transgender students in California, with both districts eventually agreeing to allow the students to use female-designated facilities.
The student's family first contacted District 211 when she was still in eighth grade and was told by the superintendent at the time that she would not be allowed to use a restroom stall in the girls' locker room, according the Office for Civil Rights' investigation. Instead, the student had to use a separate, single-occupancy restroom for physical education, swimming class and sports.
"Student A has not only received an unequal opportunity to benefit from the District's educational program, but has also experienced an ongoing sense of isolation and ostracism throughout her high school enrollment at the school," according to the letter from the Office for Civil Rights.
The student told federal authorities that she takes a circuitous route to get to the gym to avoid standing out. She said she was once the only person in a gym uniform because she was not with the rest of the class when the teacher informed the students they did not need to change. Another time, the student, who plays for the school on a girls' sports team, said she broke down in tears after her coaches reprimanded her for using the locker room to change. The coach told her some students felt uncomfortable dressing in front of her.
"All students deserve the opportunity to participate equally in school programs and activities -- this is a basic civil right," Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon said in a statement. "Unfortunately, Township High School District 211 is not following the law because the district continues to deny a female student the right to use the girls' locker room."
Superintendent Daniel Cates remains adamant that the district is not in violation of the law and warned that the Obama administration's position "is a serious overreach with precedent-setting implications."
"The students in our schools are teenagers, not adults, and one's gender is not the same as one's anatomy," Cates said in a statement. "Boys and girls are in separate locker rooms -- where there are open changing areas and open shower facilities -- for a reason."
He went on to emphasize that the district's position should not be seen as discriminatory, saying, "We celebrate and honor differences among all students and we condemn any vitriolic messages that disparage transgender identity or transgender students in any way."
The federal response came as no surprise to district officials, who held a news conference three weeks ago to get ahead of the announcement. At the time, Cates said he hoped to "work collaboratively with the OCR and (that) reasonableness will prevail."
The district has 30 days to reach an agreement with authorities or risk having their federal educational funding suspended or even terminated. The case also could be referred to the Department of Justice.
The student, whom the ACLU said does not want to be identified for privacy reasons, said in a statement that the federal ruling "makes clear that what my school did was wrong."
"This decision makes me extremely happy -- because of what it means for me, personally, and for countless others," she said. "The district's policy stigmatized me, often making me feel like I was not a 'normal person.'"
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