Dist. 211 setting up private changing room for transgender student

Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 is refusing to comply with a U.S. Department of Education order to allow a female transgender student access to a girls' locker room at school, a decision that could cost the district $6 million in federal funding.

A federal mandate from the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights states that under Title IX requirements, transgender students should have full access to sex-specific locker rooms.

Instead, District 211 says it will provide the student with a private area to change “to protect the privacy rights of all students when changing clothes or showering before or after physical education and after-school activities, while also providing accommodations necessary to meet the unique needs of individual students,” according to a statement issued by the district Monday.

“This is blatant, plain-old discrimination,” said John Knight, director of ACLU Illinois' LGBT program, which is handling the student's case.

“They are telling a student that she can't be with her friends at school but has to be relegated to a separate place to dress. That's just a horrible thing to do.”

Knight said the ACLU will continue to fight for the student's rights.

The student initially filed a complaint with the Department of Education 18 months ago. According to the ACLU, the department found that the school discriminated against the student in denying her access to the girls' locker rooms for gym class and competitive sports.

The district decided to go public Monday while students were out of school for Columbus Day, Superintendent Dan Cates said. A letter of enforcement is expected later this week from the Department of Education, he said.

“We believe that we would be compromising other students' privacy if we did this. We do not believe we are discriminating,” Cates said, adding that there are transgender students in each of District 211's five high schools. “They are asking us to have opposite-sex students in the same open area of the locker room and showers. We do not do that.”

Neither the district nor ACLU is identifying the student or which school she attends.

Knight said this is the first time he has seen a school district go against the Department of Education on this issue.

“It is very rare given that the Department of Education can take away a school's federal funding,” he said. “They are knowingly breaking the law. Not only is it illegal, but it is extremely harmful to a student.”

Cates said he knows what the district is risking by refusing to comply, but he is standing by the will of the District 211's elected officials.

“We are very hopeful that we are going to be able to work to find a solution before this gets to the matter of funding,” Cates said. “If we were to implement OCR's unilateral mandate of unconditional access, we believe it sacrifices both student privacy and overrides the will of our local board of education.”

School board President Mucia Burke said the decision not to obey the federal mandate was reached collectively by the board and district administration.

“In this particular case, we just don't agree that the federal government should be dictating where we should be going, and that it's not in the best interest of all students to have unrestricted access to the locker rooms,” Burke said. “This is really uncharted waters.”

Burke said District 211 has been complying with all federal directives concerning transgender students except unrestricted access to locker rooms. Transgender students in District 211 can change their name, use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify, as there are private stalls, and participate in sex-identified sports teams according to IHSA policy.

A transgender student is student who consistently and uniformly asserts a gender identity different from the student's assigned sex, or for which there is documented legal or medical evidence that the gender identity is sincerely held as part of the student's core identity, according to the district's statement.

“We understand how difficult this is for all students, and we are sensitive to the needs of all students,” Burke said. “This is really not about one particular student; it's about the rights of all students.”

One of the board's newest members, Peter Dombrowski, said all board members agreed with the decision.

“At the end of the day, regardless of money, our job is to balance everybody's needs,” Dombrowski said. “The whole board is on board for this. We're at a consensus. I don't see anyone not willing to go through the next step of the process.”

Since District 211 has refused to comply with the mandate, the next step is in the Office of Civil Rights' court to determine whether litigation, revoking funds or another punishment is necessary. Representatives from the Department of Education were not available to comment Monday because of the federal holiday.

District 211 has a $240 million budget, so the $6 million in federal funding makes up a small portion of its total revenue. Cates said it would be “unconscionable” for the government to revoke funding for at-risk students over this issue, but he isn't willing to back down, either.

“Our principles that we stand on are the ones that define who we are,” he said.

Cates, who started his education career as a school psychologist, said he understands the difficulties facing transgender students, but that his responsibility is to all of the district's 12,000 students.

Knight and the ACLU say understanding the difficulties of transgender students is not enough.

“There was a day when students were told they couldn't use the restroom because of their race,” Knight said. “This is not the same thing exactly, but it is similarly harmful. To tell someone that they have to be singled out for different treatment is very stigmatizing, and that is the kind of discrimination we have here.”

The student who filed the complaint has identified as female since a very early age and has been living full time as a girl for several years, the ACLU said.

“She is well accepted among students. It is really just the school that has a problem at this point,” Knight said.

“This is an emerging issue for schools across the state and the nation,” Cates admitted.

At Barrington Area Unit School District 220, the needs of transgender students enrolled at the elementary, middle and high school levels are addressed on a case-by-case basis, Superintendent Brian Harris said.

“Each kid is different. Every situation is a little different,” he said. Harris said students at Barrington High School who want to change in a private area can, but if they want to change in the locker room of their gender identity, they can choose that as well. He declined to comment on the situation in neighboring District 211.

Each case in District 220 is handled administratively, not by the school board, and there have been no complaints from students about the issue, he said.

“Quite frankly, kids are really tolerant. Kids are amazing. This is not a kid issue. This is an adult issue,” Harris said. “This is just one of the many issues we work through to accommodate the needs of our students.”

• Daily Herald staff writer Eric Peterson contributed to this report.

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A transgender student has filed a federal complaint against Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 over access to school locker rooms. The district said Monday it will provide the student with a private changing area, in violation of federal regulations. Daily Herald File Photo, 2013
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