This week, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) informed District 211, Illinois’ largest school district, that it was in violation of federal law by refusing to allow a transgender student to use the locker rooms that match her gender identity. The school has responded by declaring that it will continue to discriminate against the student.
The student, whose name has been kept private, first filed a complaint with support from the ACLU of Illinois in early 2014. She was already living as a girl and was playing sports, but was forced to change in a separate room a long hallway away from the gym. Following precedent in two similar cases in California, OCR informed District 211 in a not-yet-public decision that depriving the student of equal access to facilities violates Title IX’s sex nondiscrimination protections, calling such treatment “inadequate and discriminatory.”
The school responded by doubling down. At a press conference, Superintendent Dan Cates insisted, “This is about matters of student privacy.” Promising not to abide by OCR’s pending decision, he explained, “What they are asking us to do is have opposite sex students in the same open area of the locker room and that we do not do. This is a matter we take very seriously and this policy would undo that.”
A statement issued by the district asserts that it “supports” transgender students, but is drawing the line at open locker rooms. “After serious and lengthy consideration, the District will continue to provide private accommodations for transgender students to ensure a respectful school environment, and will not allow unrestricted access to its locker rooms as directed by OCR.” The statement notes that violating the OCR’s decision could lead to litigation, enforcement action, and the potential loss of federal education funds.
John Knight of the ACLU of Illinois, who represents the student, told ThinkProgress that she finds it incredibly “painful to be singled out.” Having to use the separate changing room has resulted in her being late for class on some occasions. “It sends a strong message to her,” he explained, “that she’s not like other students,” describing her as feeling like a “pariah.” A press release from the ACLU further described that “being separated from her classmates and teammates stigmatized the student and made her feel different.”
Knight rebuked the school for its announcement to continue discriminating against the student. “It is puzzling that the school district has decided to elevate its misguided interpretation of ‘privacy’ over the fundamental principle of non-discrimination,” he said in a statement. “The school leadership’s decision is a poor reflection on the community they represent.”
What happens next won’t be determined until OCR issues its opinion and then assesses how to respond if the school refuses to comply.