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Illinois School Threatens to Back Out of Trans Discrimination Settlement

DISTRICT 211

Less than a week after a Chicago-area school district announced a landmark settlement — to allow a transgender girl to use the appropriate locker room — Superintendent Dan Cates now says the district may back out of the agreement because officials don't like how the settlement was presented to the media. Cates called the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights' announcement "wrong" and "an act of bad faith."

The student, who is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a complaint after officials at Palatine High School forced her to use a separate facility to change clothes and shower. Cates argued that allowing the student to use the locker room would violate the privacy of other students. The OCR disagreed, finding that the school violated federal gender equality laws, specifically Title IX, the 1972 federal statute that prohibits discrimination based on sex in federally funded schools.

After a contentious hours-long meeting, the school board approved the agreement on a 5-2 vote early Thursday morning. Under the settlement, the district must provide the student access to the locker room. The five-page agreement stipulates that “based on Student A’s representation that she will change in private changing stations in the girls’ locker rooms, the District agrees to provide Student A access to locker room facilities designated for female students at school and to take steps to protect the privacy of its students by installing and maintaining sufficient privacy curtains (private changing stations) within the girls’ locker rooms to accommodate Student A and any students who wish to be assured of privacy while changing.”

OCR assistant secretary Catherine Lhamon announced the settlement, saying, "I think each of us is diminished when we deprive somebody of civil rights, and I think this is a great day for students in the district and for students around t3he country to recognize that the federal government is here to support your rights."

Lhamon's comments, however, sparked a new controversy, when Cates refuted Lhamon's assertion that the settlement would apply district-wide. He asserted that the agreement is specific to this particular case and could be broken if the student doesn't use privacy curtains and a segregated shower area.

In a statement released to the media, Cates says the district is "outraged" by Lhamon's "blatant disregard for the facts of the negotiated agreement."

"The OCR appears to be stating to the media what they wish was in the agreement, rather than what was actually agreed upon by both OCR and the District 211 Board of Education," the release says. "It is wrong, it is an act of bad faith, and our school district will not let it stand."

To be clear, what was agreed upon between District 211 and the OCR struck a critical balance for safeguarding the privacy of all students, recognizing the dignity of all students, and allowing all students to participate fully in our education programs.

The resolution agreement’s provisions on locker room access, approved by our School Board just 36 hours ago, apply ONLY to the student who lodged the complaint. It does not apply district-wide, nor set precedent for other school districts in the country. It gives this student access to the gender-identified locker room with this student’s stated assurance that privacy curtains will be used. And, if this student doesn’t comply, access will no longer be allowed. The agreement also removes the threat of the loss of federal funds and states that no violation of Title IX or discrimination by the District has occurred.

We communicated to the OCR that we expected a full retraction of their inaccurate portrayal of the agreement in the media. They refused. Failing that, we will convene an emergency board meeting to discuss taking action, including retraction of the agreement because the OCR acted in bad faith.

Citizens have a right to expect more from a federal agency than smoke and mirrors. The date, time, and location for the emergency Board of Education meeting will be posted on the District 211 website once it is established.

The ACLU responded to Cates's threats, saying the superintendent's comment were "intemperate and inflammatory."

Clearly, the District remains committed to a path of discrimination and division, rather than moving toward healing, understanding and inclusion. In its letter of findings, OCR found the District in violation of Title IX for refusing to allow our client in the locker room unless she agreed to change behind a privacy curtain. Similarly, the resolution agreement fails to condition our client’s locker room access on whether she uses the privacy curtains.

Our client should be treated as every teenage girl, with the right to exercise her own sense of modesty and privacy. Threatening to cut off our client’s access to the locker room if she does not promise to use the privacy curtains exclusively simply moves her current segregation from a separate room to a space inside the locker room, as OCR already concluded.

After being caught in their repeated misrepresentations of this matter over several weeks, it is strange to see the District accuse someone else of acting in “bad faith” and engaging in “smoke and mirrors.” It is time to end this hostile and cynical public relations campaign and for the leadership of District 211 to create an open and welcoming environment for all students — as other school districts in Illinois and the nation have already done.

Lhamon also rejected Cates's hotheaded blast to the media, saying it was "wishful thinking" and "facially inconsistent with the terms of the agreement" to insist the policy wouldn't apply district-wide.

"I think we've been very clear about our position that [the district's] past denial of access to the locker room did discriminate on the basis of sex," she told the Chicago Tribune. "So I cannot imagine that this district would be surprised about the way that we would enforce that going forward."

District officials have not announced whether they will officially pull out the agreement. If they do, the district risks losing $6 million in federal funding.

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