Dist. 211 chief: Feds stymie schools' creative transgender solutions

 
By Daniel Cates
Guest columnist
Updated 10/15/2015 2:14 PM
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This newspaper published an editorial Wednesday calling for creative alternatives for meeting the needs of transgender high school students in boys' and girls' locker rooms. While it was frustrating that Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 was not called for the facts surrounding our opposition to what could equate to a far-reaching mandate imposed by the federal Office of Civil Rights (OCR) and Department of Education, the Daily Herald did get one thing right -- that schools in Illinois, and throughout the country, should be finding sensitive and appropriate arrangements in schools to serve courageous transgender teenagers.

This is exactly what High School District 211 has been doing for years, and what we offered months ago as a solution to this OCR complaint.

The Daily Herald suggested that District 211 officials "provide stalls in both boys and girls locker rooms to afford privacy to any student." Our proposal exactly. We believe such a solution safeguards the privacy and dignity of all students. We also know it works, because school officials across school districts collaborate often on issues like these.

The problem is that OCR has no interest in creative or sensitive solutions. OCR has rejected our proposal to have transgender students into our locker rooms along with a reasonable request to shower or change clothes in private. OCR has taken this position although there is no federal law that allows any high school student who remains anatomically one sex to disrobe or shower in the presence of others who are of the opposite sex in a public school locker room.

The OCR won't budge, and instead demands a districtwide policy allowing students who are transgender to change clothes, shower, and have full access to opposite-sex locker rooms without any restriction on privacy. To be specific, this means female students with male anatomy in the girls' locker room and male students with female anatomy in the boys' locker room.

OCR now attempts to set national policy with a Washington-will that could remove the individualized creative decision-making from school districts everywhere.

Some people are not familiar with transgender individuals. The body that transgender students have on the outside is not the identity they are on the inside. For all of us, it is our identity on the inside that defines who we are, and who we are on the inside is what truly matters. We all can rightly admire the courage of these young people who convey this to their parents, friends and, eventually, to teachers and administrators.

The district has long recognized and been responsive to the needs of our transgender students. We strongly disagree with and condemn any vitriolic messages that disparage transgender identity or transgender students. We listen and provide support. As requested, we change their listed gender on their school records and we change the student's name. We support their participation on sports teams of their identified gender. We provide private accommodations for bathrooms, if requested. If transgender teens prefer to use the opposite-sex bathroom, we honor this request because we are able to provide student privacy for them and for others via bathroom stalls.

This goes farther than many, many schools across the country that are currently handling similar issues.

The mandated policy that OCR attempts to impose on District 211 would have national precedent-setting implications. The precedent-setting cases OCR cites include cases where school districts have agreed to "recommended settlement agreements" from the OCR that threaten schools and universities with the loss of federal funding.

The potential loss of federal funds is significant, but we believe the loss of appropriateness, reason and privacy for teenagers is also significant.

There are those who might have us take the money and compromise our principles, along with those of potentially every other school district. This is not the leadership our schools need today, nor the way the leaders of High School District 211 plan to handle tough and sensitive issues that impact our young people. OCR's actions amount to good old-fashioned bullying where the agency with all the power threatens to take someone's lunch money; but in this case, it is federal lunch money that we use to provide free and reduced-price meals and many important services to economically disadvantaged students.

We believe that the proposed solutions we offered early in this process and months ago -- the same ones suggested by this newspaper -- are reasonable and honor every student's dignity.

One other important point of clarity -- the OCR does not create law and to oppose OCR does not violate federal law. The American system of justice is built on fair and due process -- principles which have not typified our dealings with the OCR. We believe it would be unconscionable for OCR to remove funding designated to serve at-risk students when we have offered alternative solutions that protect the dignity of all.

This is an emerging and critical matter for school districts everywhere. This is not the time for a federal agency to determine a course that removes reasonable, dignified, tested and workable solutions from school districts. District 211 seeks to engage an important discussion for all school districts and our citizens surrounding how we can support ALL students with sensitivity, inclusiveness and dignity.

Daniel Cates is superintendent of schools for Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211.

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