New York Times 2 November 2015
Federal education authorities, staking out their firmest position yet on an increasingly contentious issue, found Monday that an Illinois school district violated anti-discrimination laws when it did not allow a transgender student who identifies as a girl and participates on a girls’ sports team to change and shower in the girls’ locker room without restrictions.
Education officials said the decision was the first of its kind on the rights of transgender students, which are emerging as a new cultural battleground in public schools across the country. In previous cases, federal officials had been able to reach settlements giving access to transgender students in similar situations. But in this instance, the school district in Palatine, Ill., has not yet come to an agreement, prompting the federal government to threaten sanctions. The district, northwest of Chicago, has indicated a willingness to fight for its policy in court.
The Education Department gave 30 days to the officials of Township High School District 211 to reach a solution or face enforcement, which could include administrative law proceedings or a Justice Department court action. The district could lose some or all of its Title IX funding.
In a letter sent Monday, the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Education told the Palatine district that requiring a transgender student to use private changing and showering facilities was a violation of that student’s rights under Title IX, a federal law that bans sex discrimination. The student, who identifies as female but was born male, should be given unfettered access to girls’ facilities, the letter said.
“All students deserve the opportunity to participate equally in school programs and activities — this is a basic civil right,” Catherine Lhamon, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, said in a statement. “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.”
Daniel Cates, the district superintendent, said in a statement Monday that he disagreed with the decision, which he described as “a serious overreach with precedent-setting implications.” In an interview, Dr. Cates said district officials had “worked long and hard” to develop a plan that the district believed would balance the rights of everyone involved. That plan entails having the student change beyond privacy curtains in the girls’ locker room.
The rights of transgender students have become the focus of disputes in school districts in many states, leading to divergent approaches regarding which sports teams they can play on, bathrooms they can use and pronouns they are addressed by. In separate cases, two California school districts agreed to lift restrictions on transgender locker room and restroom access after federal officials intervened. Students at one Missouri high school protested a decision by the district to let a transgender girl use female locker rooms and restrooms.
Lawyers from the Thomas More Society, a nonprofit religious liberty organization, praised the district for its position, and described a locker room as significantly different from, for instance, a bathroom with stalls. The Education Department, they said, seemed to take a hard line.
“You have a higher degree of visual privacy when you’re talking about stalls,” Jocelyn Floyd, a lawyer from the Thomas More Society, said. “In this case, the school has shown that they are sensitive to the needs of this transgender student but also to the needs of all the other students. When you think about it, there are a lot of students in high school who are uncomfortable with disrobing in front of people.”