A united Chicago school board is fighting an order from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) to allow a transgender student full access to the high school girls’ locker room, a battle that could cost them millions in federal funding.
In 2014, the transgendered student filed a complaint with the OCR against Township School District 211, located in a northwestern suburb of Chicago, stating the district would not allow him use the girls’ locker room. The student, who has not been named, is biologically a boy but has been living as a girl for several years, the Chicago Tribune reported.
The OCR launched an investigation and concluded the district violated a recently enacted anti-discrimination mandate that states transgender students are included in Title IX protection against sexual discrimination. But without clear direction from the OCR on how to implement the rule, public schools across the nation have struggled with how to balance transgender students’ rights while also protecting the privacy rights of the vast majority of students.
The OCR instructed the Chicago district to change its policy, or face litigation and potential loss of federal funding. But after months of unproductive negotiations, the district went public with the issue on Oct. 13, according to Chicago’s Daily Herald.
In a newsletter to parents, district Superintendent Daniel Cates explained the dispute, stating that after “thoughtful review,” the district would not agree to the OCR’s demands because the “unilateral mandate does not consider the best interests of all District 211 students and families.” The district is responsible for the education of more than 12,000 students.
Cates noted in an editorial published in the Daily Herald that the district is sensitive to transgender students’ needs. In addition to adopting no-tolerance policies for bullying, the district changes students’ names and genders on school records when requested, allows them to participate in sports teams of their identified sex, and lets them use opposite-sex bathrooms because stalls provide natural privacy for all students.
“OCR has rejected our proposal to have transgender students into our locker rooms along with a reasonable request to shower or change clothes in private,” Cates wrote. “OCR has taken this position although there is no federal law that allows any high school student who remains anatomically one sex to disrobe or shower in the presence of others who are of the opposite sex in a public school locker room.”
But John Knight, an ACLU attorney representing the student, insists the district is engaging in discrimination.
“What they have done is they have singled out my client for shaming,” Knight told Al Jazeera America. “Now they’ve been proposing ‘we’ll let you in here but only if you agree to dress behind the privacy screen.’ And that tells her: ‘You’re not really a girl, and you should be particularly ashamed of your body.’”
The district faces losing $6 million in federal funding for refusing to comply with the OCR’s demands. Despite the risk, Cates said he won’t back down and it would be “unconscionable” for the government to revoke funding for at-risk students over this issue, the Daily Herald reported.
OCR officials now must decide what they will do in light of the district’s noncompliance.
“The loss of federal funds is significant, but we believe the loss of appropriateness, reason, and privacy for teenagers is also significant,” Cates said.
–By Sarah Padbury