Chicago-area school district defies government on transgender access

CHICAGO, Oct 24:     A suburban Chicago high-school district is defying federal rules by denying a transgender student unrestricted access to a girls’ locker room in a case that could cost the district millions of dollars in aid and shape a national standard on the issue. The Township High School District 211, with seven high schools in the suburbs west of Chicago, has provided separate spaces for transgender students to change and shower, but it has refused to go further, saying the privacy needs of other students were at stake. The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, which brought the lawsuit in 2013 on behalf of a transgender student who identifies as female, has said the arrangement is discriminatory and that it stigmatizes transgender students. Negotiations between the district and the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) have failed to resolve the impasse. The issue may come to a head on Monday when the OCR announces its findings. If it says the district’s arrangement violates gender equality rules, the schools may lose  6 million  dollars in federal funding and clarify a murky regulatory area. “Having a finding and analysis from the Department of Education specific to locker rooms will certainly have a national impact in terms of telling school districts around the country what they should be doing,” said John Knight, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. The Illinois case comes at a time of expanding awareness of transgender issues, due in part to the high-profile transition of Caitlyn Jenner, the reality TV star and former Olympic athlete once known as Bruce. More and more states have made it illegal to discriminate against transgender people. The Illinois case is not the first case of its kind. In 2013 and 2014, two California school districts that adopted similar policies eventually settled with the government, agreeing to allow transgender students unrestricted access to restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity. Schools from Ohio to Missouri have also wrestled to shape rules over locker room and restroom access that conform with Title IX, a federal law on sex discrimination in public schools. A finding in the Illinois case could clarify what the federal law requires. The Department of Education investigated the complaint and in July ordered the district to give the girl unrestricted access. The girl, whose name has not been made public, has identified as female from a young age and has been living full-time as a female for seven years, the ACLU said. For its part, the district has defended how it meets the needs of transgender students. They are listed under their preferred gender and can play on the sports teams of the gender they identify with, spokesman Thomas Petersen said. “This is an emerging and critical matter for school districts everywhere,” Daniel Cates, superintendent for the district with 12,500 students, wrote in an op-ed piece in the Daily Herald newspaper this week. “This is not the time for a federal agency to determine a course that removes reasonable, dignified, tested and workable solutions from school districts,” he said. He said the OCR was bullying schools into settlements with the threat of revoking funds for lunch programs for poor students. Even so, he said the district was prepared to lose its funding. The Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal group, sent a letter of support this week to the school district, saying it was not violating federal rules. “Protecting students from inappropriate exposure to the opposite sex is not only perfectly legal, it’s a school district’s duty,” Matt Sharp, a lawyer for the alliance, said in the letter. (AGENCIES)


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