Dist. 211 defends locker room policy for transgender students

Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 has nine more days to sign the Office of Civil Rights' letter of enforcement to allow a transgender student unrestricted access to a girls locker room — or face some kind of action, district officials said Wednesday.

If they don't — and officials indicated Wednesday they don't intend to sign the letter — the next step is in the hands of the Office of Civil Rights, which can choose to hold an administrative hearing or involve the U.S. Department of Justice.

In an interview with the Daily Herald Editorial Board on Wednesday, District 211 Superintendent Dan Cates argued that the district's position on transgender students does not violate federal law — and, in fact, has been misunderstood since Monday, when District 211 made public its decision to not accept the OCR guidelines.

District 211 allows transgender students to use the bathrooms they feel most comfortable in, and change their names officially on file with the district, if they want to. The students also can play on the sports teams of the gender they identify with.

When it comes to locker rooms, District 211's position is that students should be able to use the locker rooms of the gender they identify with — but that once inside those locker rooms they would have to use private shower stalls and changing areas to avoid being naked in the company of the other students.

District 211 has made separate changing areas available in the girls locker room, right next to the showers. But the OCR has rejected that compromise as inadequate, Cates said.

While respectful of transgender students' identity, the district objects to allowing a person with male body parts to shower and change clothes openly in a girls locker room and vice-versa, Cates said.

Cates said District 211 has transgender students at all five high schools. The administration, staff and student body are all incredibly welcoming to transgender students, he said.

What's more, District 211 has been at least as accommodating to transgender students as other suburban school districts, if not more, he said — the only difference being District 211 is the subject of a federal complaint, brought by a student.

“If we do not stand up, this becomes precedent for everyone,” Cates said. “OCR's position has forced this to close far too soon. It is our position that more information is helpful to people.”

Cates said the district believes the dispute is a matter of legal interpretation and that case law will bear out the district's side as not only being reasonable but a correct interpretation of the federal transgender laws.

John Knight disagrees. The director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois' LGBT program who's representing the transgender student who brought the case against District 211, Knight says this is a clear case of discrimination — that District 211 is treating his client differently than any other girl.

“They are telling a student that she can 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 student initially filed a complaint with the Department of Education 18 months ago.

Meanwhile, an online petition started by a student had more than 350 signatures Wednesday afternoon asking the district to allow transgender students to change openly in the locker rooms of their gender identity.

Jake Lytle, a Fremd High School senior who started the petition, said it gives students a chance to say they don't mind changing with transgender students.

“The truth is most students wouldn't have a problem with this at all,” he said.

Lytle said when the petition gets more signatures he will present it to the district's administration.

Cates acknowledged the issue has been of particular importance to District 211 parents and said more than 95 percent of people who have contacted the district support District 211's position. He adds, however, that some of the support comes from people who have been vitriolic about transgender students in general, which he said the district emphatically does not agree with.

Cates concedes that the district's position may risk some of its Title IX federal funding aimed at prohibiting sex discrimination. District 211 received $6 million last year, but Cates said he doesn't know how much could actually be lost from future funding as a result of its disagreement with the OCR.

But he stressed again that the district's position does not represent a violation of law.

“It is important to me that we have a clear understanding of our support for trans kids, for all that we have done, and to honor that and to honor them,” Cates said. “My fear is that the information that is out there is not accurate.”

• Daily Herald staff writer Melissa Silverberg contributed to this report.

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