Why Palatine Became A Battleground Over Transgender Student Rights

A transgender student's access to a high school locker room in Palatine's School District 211 ignited a debate in the northwestern suburb. Linda Lutton / WBEZ
A transgender student's access to a high school locker room in Palatine's School District 211 ignited a debate in the northwestern suburb. Linda Lutton / WBEZ

Why Palatine Became A Battleground Over Transgender Student Rights

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The high school district in northwest suburban Palatine has been a flashpoint for the debate over how transgender students are treated in schools. 

And now that battle has moved to the district’s school board race. The election is Tuesday, pitting candidates with opposing views over which school locker rooms and bathrooms transgender students can use. 

The district was the nation’s first to be told by the federal government it was violating a transgender student’s civil rights by denying her use of the girls’ locker rooms. That was in 2015. Ultimately, the district agreed to allow the transgender girl at the center of the legal debate here — known simply as Student A — to use the girls locker room.

That set off a community-wide debate and lawsuit that is still raging.

We look at the school board race in Palatine’s District 211, Illinois’ largest district serving only high schoolers, and consider why this debate erupted in this suburban community.

Rollback vs. stay the course in Palatine

A slate of three challengers — Ralph Bonatz, Katherine David and Jean Forrest — want to “replace the district’s practice of allowing locker room and restroom access to students of the opposite biological sex who are dealing with gender identity issues,” according to their website. The candidates wouldn’t speak to WBEZ, saying they were busy campaigning.

Pictured above is a yard sign for a slate of candidates who oppose the district's current policy allowing transgender students access to locker rooms aligned with their gender identity. (Linda Lutton/WBEZ)

District 211 has for many years allowed transgender students to use whatever bathroom they want, arguing there are stalls in bathrooms that protect everyone’s privacy.

And, following initial resistance, District 211 since January 2016 has allowed Student A to use the girls’ locker room. The district maintains the transgender girl doesn’t have “unfettered access” to the locker room since she’s agreed to change behind privacy curtains or stalls the district put in as part of their agreement with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. School officials say their agreement allowing locker room access applies only to Student A and not to all transgender kids in District 211 schools.

That agreement was approved in December 2015 by the District 211 school board in a 5-to-2 vote.

Advocates and community members concerned about a rollback of transgender student rights are supporting three candidates — incumbents Bob LeFevre Jr. and Anna Klimkowicz, and former board member Ed Yung. All say they support the district’s current practice regarding transgender students.

Volunteers write postcards to voters and urge them to support three school board candidates who favor an open locker room policy for transgender high school students -- incumbents Bob LeFevre Jr. and Anna Klimkowicz, and former board member Ed Yung. (John Fecile/WBEZ)

Despite all the controversy and legal battles, District 211 has no written policy on accommodating transgender kids. It does, however, have written language — also part of their agreement with the feds — that says the district won’t discriminate on the basis of sex.

Why Palatine?

Republican state Rep. Tom Morrison has some ideas why this issues erupted in his community. School board members, he said, aren’t representing the community’s values. People are looking for a “rebalancing” on both fiscal issues and school policy, he said.

“Concerns for all the students need to be considered — not just a handful of individuals who are making demands on the other 99.9 percent,” Morrison said. As the issue heated up in Palatine, Morrison said he “witnessed hundreds and hundreds of parents and students come out to ask the sitting school board to consider a reasonable, common-sense, compassionate compromise on the issue of student privacy.” The majority of board members didn’t listen, he said.

“The school board is supposed to be the voice of the community,” said state Rep. Tom Morrison.

Morrison is backing the Bonatz-David-Forrest slate and has proposed legislation that would compel all Illinois school districts to make students use bathrooms corresponding to their biological sex at birth.

Palatine residents concerned about school spending had already been watching their school boards, he said, so it was easy for them to jump in when the transgender issue came up. The group Parents for Privacy was created in 2015 just before District 211 agreed to let Student A use the locker rooms. That group opposes giving transgender students access to the bathroom that matches their gender identity.

“What we would like to see happen is the student who needs a special accommodation, who’s struggling with his or her gender identity — we think it’s appropriate to give that student access to the coach’s locker room, a referee locker room, a single-occupancy changing area so everyone is able to have sufficient privacy,” Morrison said.

“The school board is supposed to be the voice of the community,” he added.

Why the national spotlight?

Palatine is attractive to national groups looking for a big win on this issue in part because it’s the largest high school district in Illinois, said Chicago-area transgender advocate Gearah Goldstein. The district includes five high schools serving 12,000 students.

“Once marriage equality passed, there was a huge vacuum created,” Goldstein said. She says people who had been working against gay marriage, “then had to mobilize and find another issue. And that issue became trans students,” she said.

A loose affiliation of 51 anonymous families called Students and Parents for Privacy is suing District 211 and the federal government, arguing that the district’s policy of allowing transgender students to use bathrooms corresponding to their gender identity violates other students’ right to privacy and creates “an intimidating and hostile environment.”

They are represented, Goldstein points out, by national religious legal defense groups, including the Alliance Defending Freedom. ADF has been named a hate group by the Southern Poverty law Center. A spokesman for Alliance Defending Freedom said it’s a respected advocate doing serious work, some associated with U.S. Supreme Court cases, that protects fundamental rights like free speech, religious freedom and freedom of conscience. The group, which describes itself as the world’s largest religious-freedom legal group, dismissed the SPLC and its designation.

“I don’t know that a lot of people in Chicago actually understand that what’s happening in North Carolina and Texas is happening right here,” said advocate Gearah Goldstein.

Transgender rights advocates also consider Palatine an important battleground. The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois has been involved from the beginning, representing Student A and now assisting the district as it defends against the lawsuit.

Goldstein herself hails from a North Shore suburb but is now organizing in Palatine.

“I don’t know that a lot of people in Chicago actually understand that what’s happening in North Carolina and Texas is happening right here,” she said, referring to other states where transgender issues have made national news. “So when they say, ‘Yeah, we want to protect trans kids,’ I’m saying, ‘OK, if you want to protect trans kids, put boots on the ground right now in Palatine.’”

No way to ‘un-ring’ this bell

The fight in Palatine has been long, divisive and explosive in part because of the way the school district initially responded, said Ed Yohnka, director of communications and public policy for the ACLU of Illinois.

District 211’s initial resistance to letting Student A use the locker room “was like jet fuel on a flame,” he said, adding that it doesn’t have to be that way.

In districts where the issue has been settled peacefully, districts stake out a position and then “they support the students who are transgender,” Yonka said. “And they use the attention brought to the matter in order to educate the broader public about what it means to be transgender, to alleviate fears and to really dampen down this kind of angst and anger that some people feel.”

Yohnka said schools all over the state are doing just this — from small downstate districts to the Chicago Public Schools. Transgender student advocates have compiled a list of model Illinois districts and policies here.

Yohnka said District 211 eventually came around. In addition to asking the ACLU for help against the federal lawsuit filed by Students and Parents for Privacy, the district has held training sessions for staff and community members.

“They’ve really worked and struggled to get this right,” Yonka said. “The problem was that the launching point for all this had already occurred. That’s the part that’s harder to walk back. There’s no way to ‘un-ring’ that bell once it happened. I think that’s why this became such a controversy.”

If so-called privacy candidates win a majority on the school board, they could potentially undo protections transgender kids have enjoyed without any real controversy for years in District 211, such as using the bathrooms that match their gender identity, Yohnka said. That could lead to many more years of legal fights, he added.

Kids weigh in: Who knows, who cares?

Many high school students seem baffled by the entire debate. Stop a District 211 kid outside a school and you’re likely to get opinions similar to Annabelle’s.

“Overall — stupid,” said the freshman at Fremd, one of the district’s five high schools. “A lot of fights equals a lot of terrible things happening.”

Sarah Jones, a senior who is excited to vote for the first time in Tuesday’s election said, “It’s a really simple issue in my opinion. Everyone should be able to use the facilities that they want to use. I don’t really, personally, understand why it’s been such an issue. And that’s definitely shaping how I’m going to vote.”

There’s a split in the community along generational lines, said Chris, who is 17 years old. “As Millennials, we’re more liberal, but our parents would be more conservative.”

It can be hard to find opposition to the district’s bathroom policies among kids — at least in public. Alex, another freshman, came pretty close. He said you should “generally stick to what you have down there.”

But two anonymous District 211 students spoke up in a video produced by Alliance Defending Freedom. The students’ voices were changed and their faces were blurred to shield their identity.

“When I found out that a male might be using the same bathroom as me while I’m at school, I felt very violated, very uncomfortable, very vulnerable,” she said in the video. “And I don’t feel it’s OK to have a male using the same bathroom as me.”

Linda Lutton covers education for WBEZ. Follow her at @WBEZeducation.