The U.S. Department of Education on Monday made what the ACLU described as a "landmark ruling" by ordering a public school in suburban Chicago to stop discriminating against a transgender student and warning the district it will lose federal funding if it does not allow the student access to the women's restrooms and locker room within one month's time.
The DOE's Office for Civil Rights announced its decision after spending nearly two years investigating the complaint filed by the ACLU on behalf of an unnamed student at Township High School District 211, in the town of Palatine. In issuing the ruling, the government said it found "a preponderance of evidence" that school officials had directly violated Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, by creating an aura of stigma around the girl's sexual identity and for denying her equal access to a gender-appropriate locker room simply because she is transgender.
"All students deserve the opportunity to participate equally in school programs and activities - this is a basic civil right," said Assistant U.S. Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon in a statement.
The ACLU welcomed the ruling and applauded the DOE office for taking a stand on behalf of the young student.
"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," said 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."
In a personal statement released through the civil liberties group, the student said the ruling was not only important for her, but had far-reaching implications for other students and transgender people as well.
"This decision makes me extremely happy—because of what it means for me, personally, and for countless others," said the student. 'The district’s policy stigmatized me, often making me feel like I was not a 'normal person'."
Monday's ruling, she added, "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."
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According to the Chicago Tribune:
For the student at the center of the federal complaint and all other transgender students at the district's five high schools, the staff changes their names, genders and pronouns on school records. Transgender students also are allowed to use the bathrooms of their identified gender and play on the sports team of that gender, school officials said.
But officials drew the line at the locker room, citing the privacy rights of the other 12,000-plus students in the district. As a compromise, the district installed four privacy curtains in unused areas of the locker room and another one around the shower, but because the district would compel the student to use them, federal officials deemed the solution insufficient.
The dispute highlights a controversy that a growing number of school districts face as they struggle with an issue that few parents of today's teens encountered. The Department of Education has settled two similar allegations of discrimination of transgender students in California, with both districts eventually agreeing to allow the students to use female-designated facilities.
Speaking on behalf of the ACLU, Knight said the school's compromise position and refusal to offer equal treatment to this particular student was intrinsically damaging to both her and the student body as a whole.
The District’s position, said Knight, "is wrong as a matter of science and harmful to all the students of District 211. 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."