“All students deserve the opportunity to participate equally in school programs and activities — this is a basic civil right.” (Photo: Getty Images)
The U.S. Department of Education is threatening sanctions against an Illinois school district that it says violated anti-discrimination laws when it refused to allow a female transgender student to use the girls’ locker room.
Officials say there was a "a preponderance of evidence” that Township High School District 211, which is based in Palatine, Illinois, failed to comply with Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination.
The student filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in 2013 after she was denied the right to have unlimited use of the girls’ locker room, the Chicago Tribune reports. A solution appeared to be in the works, until school officials put up privacy curtains in the locker room and said the student would be required to use the private area while changing.
Officials in the Township High School District change names, genders, and pronouns for transgender students on school records, and allow those students to use the bathrooms of the gender with which they identify, as well as play on the sports teams for that gender.
However, they dug their heels in at the locker room because of what they say are privacy violations of other students in the district. As a compromise, the district installed privacy curtains, but were found to be in violation of federal law because they would require the student to use them (as opposed to giving her the option).
The Department of Education says the decision is the first of its kind on the rights of transgender students. Previous cases have resulted in a settlement that gives proper access to transgender students; In this case, the school district, which says it will take the fight to court, has not yet come to an agreement.
“All students deserve the opportunity to participate equally in school programs and activities – this is a basic civil right,” Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education says in a statement to Yahoo Health. “Unfortunately, Township High School District 211 is not following the law because the district continues to deny a female student the right to use the girls’ locker room. The district can provide access to this student while also respecting all students’ privacy. We encourage the district to comply with the law and resolve this case.”
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, tells Yahoo Health that, while the Department of Education’s very public stance is “really great,” it simply backs up what they’ve already said. “The Department of Education has said for some time that discrimination against transgender students is Title IX sex discrimination,” she says. “That very much comports with what courts are saying with discrimination against transgender people.”
However, Keisling says the finding is helpful for schools. “It’s one thing to say it’s sex discrimination to discriminate against transgender students,” she says. “It’s another to say, what does that mean in terms of practical decisions schools have to make like sex segregated sexual education classes, sports teams, and facility usage — everybody gets hung up on facility usage.”
School restrooms and locker rooms have become a battleground for transgender students and school officials in recent years, despite federal law that prohibits denying any student the right to use facilities based on the gender with which they identify.
The Obama administration even said last week that schools that prevent transgender students from using the restroom affiliated with their gender identity are violating federal law.
The announcement came on the heels of a friend-of-the-court brief submitted by the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Justice that supports Virginia teen Gavin Grimm, who is fighting for access to his high school’s boys’ bathroom.
Lila Perry, a transgender teen in Missouri, made headlines in September over her fight to use the girls’ locker room at her high school. A court ruled also ruled in 2013 that a transgender student in California be allowed to use the appropriate bathroom in school after he was previously denied access. A transgender teen in Maine was also awarded $75,000 after suing her school for the right to use the girls’ bathroom.
But Keisling says it’s easy for school districts to comply with the law — some just don’t. “The amazing thing about transgender students is that the only real accommodation that needs to be made is for the adults to look past their prejudices and assumptions,” she says, adding that she understands that transgender issues as rights are a “new thing” for many people.
Despite the situation in Illinois, Keisling points out that plenty of schools have been in compliance with federal law. “Thousands of transgender students went back to school this year, and almost every school district said ‘Let’s deal with this in a responsible way that’s good for the school and the kid,’” she says. “Most schools are actually doing this very well.”
However, she says, there’s still plenty of work to be done. “These are prejudices we’ve all grown up with,” she says. “It’s just time to get over it.”