After 4 years of controversy, embattled northern Illinois school district grants transgender students unrestricted locker room access

After 4 years of controversy, embattled northern Illinois school district grants transgender students unrestricted locker room access

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Fremd High School student Justine Janosko, 17, center, is embraced by her mother, Samantha Nelson, as the District 211 Board of Education passes an inclusion policy to allow transgender students to use locker rooms of their gender identity, during a meeting of the board at the Fremd High School cafeteria on Nov. 14, 2019, in Palatine. The policy was adopted 5-2.\n\n

CHICAGO — A suburban high school district in the national spotlight on transgender rights is granting students unrestricted access to locker rooms based on gender identity, a culmination of four years of heated debate.

Palatine-based Township High School District 211’s board of education on Thursday voted 5 to 2 in favor of the new policy, which states in part that students “shall be treated and supported in a manner consistent with their gender identity, which shall include students having access to restrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their gender identity.”

The decision elicited mixed emotions from the crowd of roughly 250 at William Fremd High School, with one side of the room bursting in applause and the other half expressing anger and disappointment.

“Just wait until election time,” one woman shouted as she exited the meeting, interrupting one board member’s words of support for the policy.

“Home school, that’s the answer,” another woman yelled on her way out.

Superintendent Dan Cates said the policy would not be implemented until January.

“Our own direct experience shows that providing locker room access based on gender identity has resulted in no disruption in our locker rooms,” he said.

“False,” a few in the crowd said loudly.

“Other school districts that allow locker room access without any limitation as to where transgender students may change clothes have successfully implemented such policies without disruption and in a manner that protects the interests of all students,” Cates continued, his speech disrupted with several more cries of “false” from some in the audience.

The district emerged at the center of a national debate over transgender rights in schools some four years ago. A transgender teen who was identified publicly as “Student A” made national headlines after filing a complaint against District 211 with federal authorities over locker room access, and the case set precedent as the first time a school district was found to have violated Title IX based on gender identity.

The district allowed Student A to use the girls locker room in alignment with her gender identity, and also installed privacy stalls. But a group of parents and students in 2016 filed a federal lawsuit against the school district, arguing transgender locker room access violated the rights of other students. That lawsuit was dropped in April.

Then in 2017, another transgender student named Nova Maday filed a lawsuit claiming the district restricted her to an “unspecified private changing area within the locker room” that other girls were not required to use.

At Thursday’s meeting, Maday told the crowd she just wanted “to be treated like any other girl.”

“Throughout my time in high school, the vast majority of my classmates treated me just like any other female student and allowed me to be myself,” said Maday, a graduate of Palatine High School. “Those students have been waiting for you to change this policy. They have never seen this as a controversy and only want to be inclusive and supportive of other students.”

The audience was a sea of clashing signs, some messages favoring the policy shift, others expressing opposition:

“Trans students belong in locker rooms.”

“Anatomy not identity protects all equally.”

“Separate is not equal.”

“Born a girl. Proud to be a woman. Let the majority rule.”

Julia Burca, a junior in the district who is on her school’s swim team, begged the board not to pass the policy.

“For me, the idea of this proposal scares me,” she said during the public comment session. “When I get out of practice from a long, tiring workout, I do not want to see a transgender student naked in the locker rooms. I do not want my privacy invaded against my will. I am just one girl, in the midst of an entire district, but I have feelings too and am against this policy.”

Mandy Logan, a senior in the district, said she supported the policy change as an extension of lessons she’s been taught in class regarding tolerance, understanding and respect.

“As a student I can confirm that we do not completely undress in the locker rooms,” she added. “Everyone in a high school locker room is uncomfortable; everyone wants privacy. Every student is trying to keep on as much of their clothes as possible. … Having someone who is transgender in the locker room or restroom does not make these spaces any more uncomfortable.”

The controversy at District 211 has mirrored a larger, ongoing battle over transgender rights in schools across the country.

In 2016, the Obama administration issued a guidance that schools must accommodate transgender students, including allowing access to bathrooms and locker rooms in accordance with gender identity. But the Trump administration in 2017 rolled back those provisions.

District 211 includes nearly 12,000 students from Hoffman Estates, Inverness, Palatine and Schaumburg, as well as parts of Arlington Heights, Elk Grove Village, Hanover Park, Rolling Meadows, Roselle, Streamwood and South Barrington.

“I can’t believe in the era of Me Too and Time’s Up, when women are coming forward with stories of sexual assault and harassment, when we’re pushing more than ever for the right to set boundaries around our bodies, that we are having this conversation,” Emily Kaht, 29, of Woodstock, told the board. “This district’s policy violates the very basics of consent that feminists are trying to educate people on.”

But 33-year-old Robbin Realy, who lives in the district, praised the policy shift.

“If you choose discriminatory policies, more discrimination will follow,” he said. “A community built on discrimination is no community at all.”

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