- Views & Opinions
The U.S. Department of Education this week issued a landmark ruling recognizing that Palatine High School District 211 in Illinois is discriminating against a transgender student on the basis of her sex.
The department issued its findings after a lengthy investigation concluding that the suburban district is in violation of federal law for denying a student access to a gender-appropriate locker room for changing clothes, simply because the student is transgender.
Despite protestations from the district over the past two weeks, the department made clear that the school is engaging in harmful discrimination, according to the ACLU of Illinois.
“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,” stated John Knight, director of the LGBT & HIV Project of the ACLU of Illinois. “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.”
The written decision, released by the department’s Office of Civil Rights today, finds the district in violation of Title IX for denying a student access to the locker room facilities used by other students solely because the student is transgender. The decision places school districts all across the nation on notice that Title IX requires making such facilities available for students who are transgender. It is the first such decision issued by the department, building on legal briefs and policy statements of the federal government interpreting federal laws prohibiting discrimination.
“This decision makes me extremely happy — because of what it means for me, personally, and for countless others,” said the student, who has not been identified. “The district’s policy stigmatized me, often making me feel like I was not a ‘normal person.’”
“The Department of Education’s decision makes clear that what my school did was wrong. I hope no other student, anywhere, is forced to confront this indignity. It is a good day for all students, but especially those who are transgender all across the nation.”
In an effort to pre-empt the Department of Education’s ruling — and frame their discrimination as “reasonable” and “sensible” —District 211 has engaged in what the ACLU called “a comprehensive public relations campaign over the past two weeks.
The ACLU said the school district has mischaracterized the facts in the case and engaged in disparaging remarks, including statements indicating their belief that the young girl is not “really” a girl.
Although the district delayed the release of the findings in an effort to reach an agreement, the department has apparently recognized that the district does not intend to begin complying with the law.
Meanwhile, a student-led petition gathered hundreds of signatures from students and community members supporting the student’s access to the locker room.
The Education Department concluded that forcing a student to dress in a separate restroom for changing, which in this case was down a long hallway from the locker room, violated Title IX because it separated and stigmatized that student solely because she is transgender. The investigation made clear that the district’s claims about any problems resulting from ending the discrimination were unsupported both because other students were not concerned about the issue and because, in general, girls do not fully undress when getting ready for gym or many sporting activities. And to the extent that any girl wanted extra privacy, the District should offer them private areas to dress rather than isolating students who are transgender.
“The District’s position is wrong as a matter of science and harmful to all the students of District 211,” Knight said, “Trying to misinform students and tell them that discrimination is acceptable isn’t the kind of conduct we expect from school administrators – and isn’t a message that students are likely to accept.”
Today’s decision is the result of a complaint to the Department of Education in December 2013 on behalf of the young woman. She has identified as a female since a very early age and shared this information with her family several years ago. She transitioned to living full-time as a female and has been doing so ever since. She and her parents have legally changed her name and obtained a passport listing her gender as female.
When the young woman entered high school, she and her parents met with school officials to request that she be treated as a female in all ways, including sports, and bathroom and locker room access. She was allowed to use the restroom designated for females, wear the female uniform during physical education class and sports, but was denied use the female locker room when changing. Instead, she was directed to a separate bathroom for changing, a bathroom located down a long hallway from the gym.
Being separated from her classmates and teammates in this way has made her feel stigmatized and different. More than two years ago, her parents began to advocate, urging school officials to reverse this decision. After those efforts were unsuccessful, the parents reached out to the ACLU of Illinois, who wrote to the school explaining why the district was violating Title IX and the Illinois Human Rights Act. Because the district refused to budge, lawyers for the ACLU filed a complaint for the parents with the Department of Education in December of that same year.