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U.S. Says Illinois School Must Give Locker Room Access To Transgender Student


A school district in Illinois is at the center of one of the latest battles over the rights of transgender students. The U.S. Department of Education says the district about 30 miles northwest of Chicago is violating the rights of a student who identifies as female by not allowing her unrestricted use of the girls' locker room. The district now has a month to change its policy or risk losing millions of federal dollars. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: There are five high schools in Township High School District 211, and superintendent Daniel Cates says there are transgender students at all of them. He says the district has fully recognized requests to change names, to reassign gender on school records and has allowed students to choose the bathrooms they feel fits their gender identity since there are private stalls. Even locker rooms, says Cates, are not off-limits.

DANIEL CATES: We have offered access to our transgender students in our locker rooms, and we have asked them to agree and commit to observing an individual measure of privacy when changing their clothes or showering.

CORLEY: The name of the student has not been released, but she identifies as female and plays on a girls' sports team. She typically changes in a bathroom and, when using the girls locker room, is required to change clothes behind a privacy curtain. The ACLU helped the student file a federal complaint against the district two years ago asking for unrestricted access to the locker room. Her attorney, John Knight...

JOHN KNIGHT: No other students got this kind of rule that requires them to dress in private areas. It basically singles out my client. She knows that she's being told that she should be particularly ashamed of who she is, and so it's discrimination just in different packaging, is the bottom line.

CORLEY: In a letter this week, the education department's Office for Civil Rights agreed, telling the school district that requiring private facilities for transgender students violated their rights under the Title IX law that banned sex discrimination. The reaction from students is mixed. By late afternoon, busses are lining up outside Fremd High School. Leonard Lee (ph) and Jeremiah Chang (ph) are tossing a football around in the school parking lot.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Personally, for me, I can see and understand where the district is coming from, so I wouldn't say I necessarily, like, fully support it, except I understand it.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Maybe some people could feel a little uncomfortable, but I don't see why they would because they're not doing anything. They're just changing.

CORLEY: Fourteen-year-old Samantha Spoon (ph), a freshman, says a private dressing area might be best for transgender students.

SAMANTHA SPOON: I think that whichever gender they truly believe their heart says that they are - I believe that that's what locker room they should be in.

CORLEY: And parents are also on both sides of the debate. Anna Clawson (ph), picking up her son from school, say eliminating the locker room restriction for transgender students is the right call.

ANNA CLAWSON: I think it should be allowed to allow them to use the locker rooms that everybody else uses.

CORLEY: But other parents side with the school district. Mona Spoon (ph), Samantha Spoon's mother, talked to NPR by phone.

MONA SPOON: These are teenagers, and they're still growing and learning and trying to understand things. And it doesn't come down to whether it's right or wrong. It comes down to the body parts, in my opinion.

CORLEY: Neither the school district or ACLU will disclose any more details about the student, but the ACLU's John Knight says regardless, denying his client unrestricted access is still unlawful.

KNIGHT: And if people have particular concerns about privacy, then they should use private areas to dress. You know, it should not be something that's imposed on my client alone.

CORLEY: Township High School District 211 could lose some or all of its Title IX federal funds if there's no change to its locker room policy. Superintendent Cates says there may be more negotiations. But the district must balance the rights of all students, and it believes its policy for transgender students is legal. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.