The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights ruled yesterday that a high school in Palatine, Ill., violated federal law when it refused to grant a young transgender woman equal access to the girls' locker room. The landmark ruling represents the first time the federal agency has publicly sided with a transgender student's claims of discrimination.
According to a "a preponderance of evidence,” the federal office determined that the school, located in Township High School District 211, violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibit sex-based discrimination in schools as an amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The department determined that while the school did respect the student's female gender identity in several capacities, officials have consistently refused to allow her to change for gym classes in the girls' locker room alongside her peers — relegating her to a private single-stall restroom, detached from the gym, that must be unlocked by a teacher roaming the halls. That is not an acceptable solution, the Office of Civil Rights found.
“This decision makes me extremely happy because of what it means for me, personally, and for countless others,” said the student in a statement disseminated by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, which is representing her. “The district’s policy stigmatized me, often making me feel like I was not a ‘normal person.’”
The student has identified as a girl since middle school. With her parents’ assistance, she changed her name on government records, including her passport, and began pursuing clinical transition to present as her authentic self in eighth grade.
Although her parents engaged in numerous conversations about equal access with school officials before their daughter entered the school, the officials refused to grant the student's request that she be allowed to change for gym class in a private stall or behind a privacy curtain inside the girls' locker room. In response, the girl's family filed a complaint with the department's Office of Civil Rights in 2013.
“During its investigation, OCR interviewed Student A and her mother, toured her high school, interviewed District administrators and staff members, and reviewed documents provided on behalf of Student A and by the District,” said OCR in its letter to the superintendent of the district, citing a two-year investigation. In the letter, the underage student is referred to only as “Student A” and her exact high school within the district is not disclosed to protect her identity.
In the letter recounting its findings, the Department of Education maintains that the school’s ongoing actions clearly represent the hallmarks of sex-based discrimination by “excluding Student A from participation in and denying her the benefits of its education program, providing services to her in a different manner, subjecting her to different rules of behavior, and subjecting her to different treatment on the basis of sex.”
Although the school accommodated the student in other respects, like addressing her by new name and referring to her as female in school’s computer system, OCR's letter notes the following:
“Student A requested an opportunity to change clothes privately within the girls’ locker rooms, in an area such as a restroom stall. After touring the School facilities, the Superintendent verbally informed Student A that the District would not allow her to access the girls’ locker rooms at the School. The District said it would not be practicable to grant her request to change privately in the locker rooms because there were too few stalls and too many students.”
Physical education is a yearly requirement for all students at the school. And while the student was actively seeking to comply with that requirement and proposed a solution the family believed would respect the privacy of all students, the district denied the student access to all three of the girls’ locker rooms. OCR's letter notes that the school issued this denial without mediation, barring the student from using the regular PE locker room, the swimming locker room, and the locker room for the girls’ athletic teams.
Federal officials and the school district negotiated for months, according to a report by Chicago TV station WBBM. A resolution appeared to be at hand when the district put up privacy curtains in the main PE locker room. But rather than accommodating the student, WBBM reports, the district launched a public relations campaign, stoking fears that the district could lose $6 million in federal funds earmarked for schools that follow the law.
Now the ACLU contends the district administration is refusing to abide by the OCR's ruling.
“What our client wants is not hard to understand. She wants to be accepted for who she is and to be treated with dignity and respect — like any other student,” said ACLU attorney John Knight in the statement. “The District’s insistence on separating my client from other students is blatant discrimination. Rather than approaching this issue with sensitivity and dignity, the District has attempted to justify its conduct by challenging my client’s identity as a girl.”
But students at the school have rallied behind their trans peer, organizing a petition that insists the school district grant her equal access to facilities. At press time, the petition has garnered 729 signatures, nearing its goal of 800 signatures.
The OCR’s ruling is a major step forward in the battle for transgender equality in public schools. Last year the U.S. Department of Education announced that trans students are protected from discrimination under Title IX. But trans-inclusive interpretations of Title IX remain inconsistent, as demonstrated by the February ruling of a federal judge who determined that a trans high-schooler in Virginia can no longer use the boys' bathroom that he had already been using for months. That student recently requested a new judge in his case.