U.S.: Illinois transgender student must get full locker room access

Story highlights

  • Illinois school district could lose Title IX funding
  • The district has 30 days to reach a settlement

(CNN)A Chicago-area school district violated anti-discrimination laws by denying a transgender student full access to the girl's locker room, federal authorities said, the latest inquiry to side with students who feel discriminated against by school policies.

The finding against Township High School District 211 concerns only one of numerous complaints of discrimination made by transgender students.
    In 2013, a Colorado court was the first to clearly rule that transgender people must be treated equally. The family of a transgender first-grader went to court after their school district stop allowing their daughter to use the girl's bathroom because she was born a boy. The ruling said such bans create a hostile, intimidating or offensive environment.
    That same year, California became the first state to allow transgender students to choose which bathrooms and locker rooms to use.
    The federal government has followed suit. Last year, the Obama administration announced that transgender people are protected from discrimination under the Civil Rights Act.
    But the report announced Monday by the Department of Education might highlight how thin the line is that schools must follow.
    Like other districts faced with this dilemma, the district tried to find a negotiated solution by putting up privacy curtains in the girls' locker room. Similar arrangements have kept schools from running afoul of anti-discrimination violations.
    At Township High School District 211, however, the line between accommodation and discrimination came down to this: whether the student would be able to choose to use the privacy curtains, or whether the school could force her to do so.
    The use of curtains might be OK, but the school can't have a policy that singles out this student for mandatory use of the privacy curtains, the Department of Education report states.
    "All students deserve the opportunity to participate equally in school programs and activities -- this is a basic civil right," Assistant U.S. Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon said in a statement.
    The student, who hasn't been publicly identified, participates on a girls' sports team, but has been required to change and shower separately from her teammates and classmates.
    At public schools, the trend has been one of accommodation for students with different needs -- everything from wheelchair ramps to individual education programs, said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.
    Accommodating transgender students is not only the right thing to do, but an easy thing to do, she said.
    "All that really has to happen here is the adults have to put their prejudices in check," she said. "These are just kids who are trying to go to school."
    Adults have unfounded concerns that transgender students somehow disrupt class, Keisling said.
    Policies that single out transgender students only further the isolation they might feel and set them up for bullying and even worse violence, she said.
    In the Township case, the DOE launched the investigation following a 2013 complaint by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, which is representing the student.
    "The Department of Education's decision makes clear that what my school did was wrong," the student said in statement from the ACLU. "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."
    The district defended its stance, saying it has been responsive to the needs of its transgender students.
    "We do not agree with (the DOE's) decision and remain strong in our belief that the District's course of action, including private changing stations in our locker rooms, appropriately serves the dignity and privacy of all students in our educational environment," the district said in a statement.
    Under the DOE's finding, the district has been given 30 days to reach a solution or face enforcement, which could mean the loss of Title IX funding. The federal law bans sexual discrimination.
    "This decision makes me extremely happy -- because of what it means for me, personally, and for countless others," the student said. "The district's policy stigmatized me, often making me feel like I was not a 'normal person.'"