A transgender student’s desire to use the girls’ locker room at her school has been a source of debate and division in her northwest suburban community for weeks. Federal officials gave Palatine-based Township High School District 211 30 days to reach an access agreement, or risk losing up to $6 million in funding and face possible litigation for violating Title IX gender equality law.
The board voted 5-2 last week in favor of an agreement that gives the student access to the locker room -- but requires her to change and shower in a separate, private area.
But questions about the scope of the agreement--whether it applied to the entire district or, just the complainant--led to more confusion and quickly threatened the compromise’s implementation. Superintendent Dan Cates expressed anger when federal officials implied it was a district-wide policy.
In a statement he said he was, “outraged by the mischaracterizations in the press by Catherine Lhamon of the Office for Civil Rights, and her blatant disregard for the facts of the negotiated agreement.”
The district called for an emergency meeting Monday to consider rescinding the agreement. Hundreds showed up at Conant High School for public comments before the board met in private to vote. Before the meeting, the OCR sent a letter to the school district’s attorneys, to clarify its position.
In the end, the board voted to uphold its agreement, saying it was the best course of action for the student while balancing the needs of all the district’s teenage students.
A spokesperson for the OCR, Dorie Nolt said, “We are pleased that the district has chosen to live up to the binding agreement it made and to its obligations under federal civil rights law.”
But while the governing bodies involved in the matter have come to terms, many still have concerns about how it will be implemented, and or enforced; and its impact on the student and her community.
At the center of this story is a young transgender woman.
Though, she’s only been heard from through her representation at the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. She is referred to, in various statements and documents, as “Student A,” and her exact high school has not been identified in order to protect her privacy. The student was born male but has identified, and lived, as a female for several years.
District 211 has five high schools with over 11,000 students. Student A’s parents said that their daughter was, at times, inconsolable when she was denied access and therefore treated differently than other girls.
In mid-November, they anonymously posted a letter to the ACLU’s website, titled, “Our child is a girl.”
They explained that they too struggled to understand that gender identity is different from one’s sexual orientation.
“If she was segregated, forced to use separate facilities, it would signal to others that it was acceptable to treat her differently,“ they wrote.
The family says it went to great lengths to ensure Student A would not be discriminated against: They legally changed her name and obtained a passport which identified her gender as female and documented medical treatments for gender dysphoria.
Her parents said that some of the opinions and comments on their daughter’s case have been “hurtful and difficult to read” but are, overall, pleased that the issue was in the public discourse.
“We are hopeful that those with open minds and hearts will come to a place of acceptance,” her parents wrote.
Parents like Hannah Garst have found their community at the center of a controversial and, at-times hostile discussion. Garst lives in Palatine, and her two children will go to the district’s high schools.
Garst said she supports the transgender student.
“Separate is not equal,” Garst said. “As a parent and as a member of the community, I think that when we discriminate against any one of our students or any one of our citizens, it has a negative effect on all of us.”
She also thinks the school could have handled the situation differently.
“I really hope that the school takes the opportunity to educate all the students and to help them understand what does transgender mean,” Garst said. “As educators, no one’s in a better position to engage and educate both the public and these students about trans issues.”
But not everyone agrees with Garst. One of the most vocal groups at the meetings was one called Parents for Privacy.
On its website, the group states, “Any access, even so-called ‘restricted access’ with the condition of using privacy curtains, still does not protect the basic privacy rights of minor girls in the locker room...Allowing students to use opposite-sex restrooms and locker rooms seriously endangers students’ privacy and safety, undermines parental authority, and violates other students’ free exercise rights.”
The school district has until January 15, 2016 to provide the student access to the locker room. Additionally, District 211 must consult with a third-party expert in gender identity within 30 days. The agreement also states that the district does not admit any violation of federal law.
The ACLU’s John Knight represents the student’s interests in the matter.
“We are thrilled that this agreement has stayed in place, (but) we are not at all happy with the district’s handling of this matter and their public statements about my client,” Knight said.
And if the student changes her mind about using the privacy curtains, Knight said he feels confident that the OCR defend her wishes.
“At the moment, no other transgender student has come forward and said, ‘I want access,’” Knight said. “If that happens, then I would expect OCR would demand equal treatment for those students.”
The school district will be monitored until June 30, 2017.
Ultimately, Knight said, “we just need to see how this plays out.”
Meredith Francis is a news desk intern. Follow her @MMLFrancis