Transgender student accuses school of 'stigmatizing' treatment

Story highlights

  • 16-year-old Ashton Whitaker says "school administrators have made my life miserable"
  • Ashton is a transgender student who first made news when he ran for prom king

(CNN)A Wisconsin transgender student who fought his school for the right to run for prom king is suing the school district for the right to be treated like a boy.

Students at Tremper High School in Kenosha rallied around 16-year-old Ashton "Ash" Whitaker in April when the administration denied his request to run for prom king. They staged after-school protests and signed his petition demanding the right to run for prom king.
    The administration eventually reversed course and let him run. But a lawsuit filed Tuesday accuses Kenosha Unified School District No. 1 Board of Education and its superintendent of discrimination in several "stigmatizing" acts through the end of the school year and continuing into summer when he went to band camp.
    "My peers and many of my teachers know me as a boy, and have been incredibly supportive," Ashton said in a statement through the Transgender Law Center, which is representing him with Washington-based civil rights firm Relman, Dane & Colfax PLLC.
    Melissa Whitaker, left, and her son, Ash.
    "But the school administrators have made my life miserable every school day since this spring, when they told me I could no longer use the boys' restrooms, which I'd been using with the support of my classmates for months. I worry about how I'm going to navigate the demands of senior year if I can't even go to the bathroom without worrying that I'm being watched."
    The district and its legal counsel are reviewing the claims, spokeswoman Tanya Ruder said.
    "The district is confident that when the litigation process establishes accurate facts and applies them to the proper legal standards its policies and practices will be found to be in total compliance with all laws," Kenosha Unified attorney Ron Stadler said.
    The lawsuit comes at a time when states are grappling with guidelines from the Obama administration that direct public schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms matching their gender identity.
    "Many states, including Wisconsin, have questioned whether the dear colleague letter is an administrative rule that was adopted by the Department of Education without following the administrative procedures act. Others have challenged whether the Department of Education's interpretation of Title IX is valid," Ruder said.
    "The district will be analyzing both of those issues."

    'Humiliated and uncomfortable'

    Ash began to transition publicly to life as a boy in freshman year, cutting his hair, changing his clothes and going by masculine pronouns among friends, according to the lawsuit. In sophomore year he came out to teachers and classmates and began requesting that they use male pronouns and a new name.
    At an orchestra performance in January 2015 he wore a tuxedo just like the other boys, with the support of his orchestra and his teacher, the lawsuit says.
    When his mother requested in March 2015 that he be allowed to use the boys' restroom, administrators demurred, leaving him with the choice of the girls restroom or a single-occupany restroom for visitors and office staff far from most of his classes, the lawsuit says.
    He grew anxious at the prospect of undermining his male identity and having to explain to others why he was being treated differently. He also feared the impact it could have on his disciplinary record. To avoid using the restroom he limited his liquid intake, triggering migraines and dehydration, the lawsuit says.
    His anxiety intensified during a July 2015 orchestra trip to Europe during which he was made to bunk with a girl, despite his request to room with other boys.
    During the trip, he was heartened to learn about a Virginia transgender student who was suing the Gloucester County School Board and felt emboldened to use the male restrooms. He continued to use the boys restroom in his junior year until February, when two assistant principals caught him.
    He was told he could only use the girls' restroom or the single-occupany restroom in the school office. He felt "humiliated and uncomfortable" but he complied out of fear of potential consequences for his disciplinary record, the lawsuit says.
    Administrators refused to change course despite letters from Ash's pediatrician attesting to the emotional toll the bathroom drama was exacting on him. Around this time he began his campaign to run for prom king after being told he could only run for prom queen.
    He and his friends presented his petition to administrators on April 4 and staged a sit-in in the school's main office. After his plight made national headlines, students' parents began to speak out against his wish to use the boys' restroom. Adults approached him and said they were praying for him, the lawsuit says.
    He won the right to run for prom king even though he ultimately did not win the post. But the whole situation left him unsettled, the lawsuit says.
    Then, in May, his guidance counselor showed Ash's mother a bright green wristband that the school intended to use to mark students who are transgender, the lawsuit says.
    He was never asked to wear it, he said, but he believes he will have to wear it when he returns for senior year.
    The district called the allegation "patently false."
    "The district does not have a practice or policy requiring any student to wear a wristband for monitoring any purpose or for any reason whatsoever," Ruder said.

    'Social stigma'

    The final straw came this summer when Ash's request to board with boys at band camp was denied. Again, he was given the choice of staying with girls or alone. He rejected the "option" to stay in a suite with girls because he is a boy and he felt uncomfortable staying with girls, the lawsuit says. Because students were prevented from entering other suites, the arrangement left him isolated, lonely and depressed, the lawsuit says.
    The treatment of the past two years has led to depression and anxiety, the lawsuit alleges, negatively affecting the National Honor Society student's academic performance. It has exacerbated Ash's symptoms of gender dysphoria, a condition his pediatrician has diagnosed, according to the lawsuit, that causes psychological distress when a person's gender identity differs from their assumed identity at birth.
    If it continues into his senior year, "He will likely experience the same social stigma, emotional distress, academic harm, and detrimental impediments to his gender transition" as in the previous year, the lawsuit says.
    The lawsuit seeks access for Ashton and other transgender students in accordance with their gender identity and asks that staff use pronouns of students' choice to address them. It also seeks injunctions to prevent the district from adopting policies that treat transgender boys differently from other boys and transgender girls differently from other girls.
    The district has nondiscrimination policies in place that apply to all students, and is reviewing and revising those policies as they relate to transgender students, Ruder said.