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Palatine HS district given 30 days to allow transgender student locker room use

A northwest suburban school district has 30 days to allow a transgender high school student use of the girls’ locker room or face legal action by the U.S. Department of Education.

The Education Department on Monday released a copy of a letter to Township High School District 211 in Palatine from the department’s Office of Civil Rights in a case that has drawn a national spotlight due to implications for schools nationwide.

“All students deserve the opportunity to participate equally in school programs and activities – this is a basic civil right. Unfortunately, Township High School District 211 is not following the law because the district continues to deny a female student the right to use the girls’ locker room,” Catherine Lhamon, the department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, said in a statement.

District 211 has maintained that complying with the ruling — stemming from a federal complaint filed in December 2013 by the student’s family — would violate the privacy rights of other students.

The Office of Civil Rights has called the district’s position discriminatory, threatening litigation and enforcement action, including potential loss of federal education funding. District 211 received $6 million in federal funding last year.

The district says it has offered the transgender student access to the girls’ locker room if she agrees to use private space within that locker room for changing or showering during physical education classes and after-school activities.

The student’s family rejects that option. Neither the student — a male who is transitioning to female — nor the high school the student attends, are being identified.

The Office of Civil Rights, in its letter on Monday, reveals that the transgender student has agreed to use the private space if granted unrestricted access to the locker room.

“The district can provide access to this student while also respecting all students’ privacy. We encourage the district to comply with the law and resolve this case,” said Lhamon.

The sticking point is that the district cannot require the student to use that private space. And after months of back and forth, the Office of Civil Rights has now given the district 30 days to comply.

On Monday, the district dug in its heels.

“We do not agree … 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,” district administration said in a statement.

“We recognize that this is an emerging and critical matter for school districts nationwide,” the statement continued. “The policy that OCR seeks to impose on District 211 is a serious overreach with precedent-setting implications. The district is prepared to engage in all avenues of due process to determine whether our position of honoring the rights of all the students is within the law.”

Headquartered in Palatine, District 211 serves nearly 12,500 students from Palatine, Hoffman Estates, Inverness and Schaumburg, and parts of seven other northwestern suburbs, in five high schools and two alternative high schools.

The significance of the outcome has led both the district and Education Department to take their cases to the media, first with District 211 Supt. Daniel E. Cates holding a press conference with local and national media about the case on Oct. 12; then the Education Department, which initially declined to discuss the case, now arguing it publicly.

“OCR has engaged in extensive negotiations with the district to resolve the Title IX violation in this case,” states the letter, which is signed by Education Department Regional Director Adele Rapport.

“The evidence establishes that, for more than two school years, the district has denied Student A access to the girls’ locker rooms at the school, and offered only separate facilities to change clothes for her PE classes and athletics activities. The district has asserted its interests in balancing the rights of all students, including the constitutional privacy interests of high school students. … The school’s students have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a locker room setting,” the letter continues.

“Student A has consistently made clear that she would use the privacy curtains to change if allowed access to the girls’ locker rooms,” Rapport writes. “Thus, the evidence establishes that, given Student A’s stated intention to change privately, the district could afford equal access to its locker rooms. If an agreement is not reached within 30 calendar days … OCR must follow … the issuance of a Letter of Impending Enforcement Action