Dist. 211 transgender student must use separate changing area; ACLU disappointed
In a settlement with the federal government approved early this morning by the Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 school board, a transgender student will continue to use a separate changing area within a girls locker room and not have unrestricted access to that locker room.
The 5-2 school board vote backed a deal with the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights that basically upholds the position the school district has been arguing for throughout the public dispute of the past two months. That position opposes the wishes of the transgender student, who was born biologically male and has male anatomy. The settlement also means the school district will not lose $6 million a year in federal funding.
The public vote came after the school board met behind closed doors for nearly three hours. That private meeting followed about two hours of public comment in front of a crowd of about 250 people.
John Knight, director of the LGBT & HIV Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, expressed disappointment on behalf of the transgender student whom the ACLU represents.
"We had hoped this agreement would be a model for other districts. It is not," Knight wrote in a statement Thursday morning. "When the OCR announced the findings in this matter, it said, 'All students deserve the opportunity to participate equally in school programs and activities.' The agreement approved last night only addresses the needs of our client, not other transgender students. This is a terrible mistake."
The ACLU was not privy to the agreement before it was voted on by the District 211 school board.
Several parents and students spoke for and against granting the student full access to the locker room, without knowing the terms of the school board's agreement with the federal agency.
After the school board vote was announced,board President Mucia Burke immediately adjourned the meeting, at which point some of the remaining parents reacted angrily and approached the school board until police intervened. The school board and staff members then left the meeting before Superintendent Dan Cates could read his statement disclosing the terms of the deal.
Some of the parents opposing any compromise with the federal agency were part of the group District 211 Parents For Privacy.
It's a huge disappointment," said Vicki Wilson, the group's founder. "The OCR doesn't have the law on its side. What they (the board) just did is expose the school district to real legal liability. We're not done and we hope more people join our cause."
Luanna Recker and Peter Dombrowski were the two school board members voting against the agreement. Board member Anna Klimkowicz explained her "yes" vote as providing privacy and protection to students.
"I believe the administration has gone above and beyond for this (transgender) student and all our students," Klimkowicz said.
The federal agency had said requiring the student to change in a separate area violated Title IX laws. The agency issued its finding last month, responding to the student's complaint that the district was discriminating by limiting her use of the girls' locker rooms.
The settlement reached later pertains only to the student who filed the federal complaint that sparked the debate and doesn't represent a districtwide policy. Furthermore, the district will allow any student access to privacy accommodations in the locker room through a variety of potential options.
In the statement released immediately after the school board vote, Cates wrote: "By reaching this mutual agreement with OCR, the threat of further litigation specific to the initial complaint has ended, and the district will retain full access to its federal funds used primarily to serve at-risk students.
"From the outset, our public statements have consistently conveyed the district's position that unrestricted access by transgender students in our open locker rooms is unacceptable, because gender is not the same as anatomy," Cates continued. "We have been clear in our public statements that access to gender-identified locker rooms must safeguard and protect student privacy whenever students are changing clothes or showering."
Cates added that District 211 has been sensitive to the needs of transgender students, including providing access to the restrooms of the gender they identify as -- where there are individual stalls -- for the past 2½ years.
Members of Parents for Privacy, as well as nearly 40 individual speakers, opposed any compromise with the Office for Civil Rights. They argued the district had strong legal standing for its decision to withhold unrestricted access to a girls locker room from the transgender student, despite the federal officials' prior ruling that the policy was discriminatory.
Nine speakers -- including one female and three male students -- argued on behalf of the transgender student and asked for the district to comply with the Office for Civil Rights ruling.
The majority of the crowd raised signs with slogans such as "Say No to Federal OCR" and "Settling is Losing" whenever a supporter of the transgender student spoke.
Though the student's complaint was filed in 2014, it became a matter of public debate only two months ago, when District 211 administrators and staff members stated they would not comply with the Office for Civil Rights' initial demand of unrestricted access to the locker room.
Cates said from the start that District 211's case promised to be precedent-setting. He added that other districts' policies that offered transgender students less than unrestricted access had been allowed to stand only because they were not facing a federal complaint.
In resisting the Office for Civil Rights' directive, district officials had acknowledged they might be risking approximately $6 million annually in federal Title IX money.
For some district residents, like Tracey Salvatore of Schaumburg, that money, plus the amount District 211 was spending on legal fees, was reason enough to drop the case and comply with the Office for Civil Rights.
Others, including some students who started an online petition, saw the issue purely as a case of discrimination.