With former Olympian and reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner’s highly publicized male-to-female gender transition journey this past summer, millions of Americans have engaged in conversations about transgender issues.
While debate continues nationally, the parents of a transgender third-grader have sued a North Riverside school district to force a policy change regarding bathroom use.
In June, the parents of an 8-year-old North Riverside child filed an injunction against Komarek School District 94, claiming the child has been denied full and equal access to the boys’ restrooms at Komarek on the basis of his gender-related identity.
The child, who was born female, identifies as a male. The child has been formally diagnosed with gender dysphoria by a psychologist at Lurie Children’s Hospital and, since diagnosis, has been living and presenting as male in all aspects of his life.
Komarek has been aware of the child’s diagnosis since February and has allowed the child to use his male name, dress as a boy and participate in various sex-segregated activities as a boy.
However, the school denies the child access to the boys’ restrooms, instead having him use private and individual staff facilities.
The parents, whose names the Landmark are withholding out of respect for their privacy, filed an injunction against the school district in June, claiming the school’s bathroom procedure denies their son the chance to live in total conformity with his gender and negatively outs him as transgender on the basis that he cannot use the regular facilities like other children.
They claim Komarek’s denial of their son’s access to the boys’ restrooms has been overall damaging to his health and well-being.
Additionally, the parents claim their son is an individual with a disability within the Illinois Human Rights Act, and that since Komarek is a place of public accommodation as defined by the act, they must recognize the child as a qualified individual for full and equal access to its public facilities and services.
The child’s parents wish for their son to have reasonable accommodation for his gender dysphoria, claiming the recommended medical treatment for individuals with the same diagnosis is to allow them to live in total conformity with the gender they identify.
As of press time, Komarek states it will not change its policy of denying the child access to the boys’ restrooms.
First-year Komarek Superintendent Brian Ganan would not comment directly on the pending suit but said that, at this time, the district does not have transgender-specific policies and continues to strive to protect the rights of all students.
“We do have related policies and other supports in place to ensure that we provide a compassionate and sensitive environment that is always mindful of student safety, privacy and needs,” Ganan said. “As a public school, this is an evolving area that we will continue to focus on to ensure that we are consistently providing supports that meet the needs of all students.”
District 94 School Board President Chris Waas echoed Ganan’s sentiments that the district continues to be respectful of the rights of all its students.
“The law is not well developed and there is no clear guidance on how to address this type of issue,” he said. “The school board has come to grips with the issue with great sensitivity to the particular student, the family and other students at Komarek [along with] being mindful of student privacy and safety concerns [and] staff training.”
John Knight, Director of the HIV and LGBT Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, is serving as the family’s spokesperson with the pending lawsuit. He argued that since state law protects against gender identity discrimination, the refusal of treating a transgender person consistently with their gender identity is nothing short of discrimination.
“This [bathroom usage] is one of many kinds of discrimination that transgender people face,” Knight said. “It’s medically harmful to a young person in school to not be able to be who they are and live fully according to their gender and their knowledge of who they are.”
Knight added there is a need to educate all students and staff on what it means to be transgender.
“[Education] works in terms of people understanding we’re not talking about someone saying, ‘Oh, today I want to be a boy and be in the boys’ bathroom,'” Knight said. “We’re talking about somebody who has a very clear and plain understanding of who they are and is going to live in this new gender for the rest of their lives and is really harmed by not being able to do so.”
Regarding the question of whether or not young children can grasp the issue, Knight says that, in his experience, students have come to understand the issue very quickly. It is more of an issue with parents and community members, because of a lack of understanding the legitimacy of the condition.
“I would never say people are stupid, [but] I do think people need to be open minded and learn about the condition,” Knight said.
While this is the first time Komarek has faced transgender student policy questions, the overall issue is something that other area districts recognize they will have to face sooner or later.
At neighboring Brookfield-LaGrange Park School District 95, Superintendent Mark Kuzniewski says that while no transgender students have come through during his tenure, the issue is still something important to understand.
“The district does not have any specific policy that relates to transgender students,” Kuzniewski said. “However, the district reviews policy about four times a year and will, at some point, need to address this issue. I suspect we will be able to learn a lot from District 94 as they move through a challenging process.”
On the flip side, Oak Park Elementary School District 97 has dealt with several transgender student cases over the past few years.
Chris Jasculca, senior director of policy, planning and communication for the district, says the district does not have a specific transgender policy, but that gender identity is one of the protected statuses in a number of policies including equal educational opportunities.
“There are best practices we follow district-wide to help ensure that we meet the needs and protect the rights of our transgender students,” Jasculca said. “For example, our transgender students are allowed to use the restroom of the gender with which they identify, [which] has been in place since the fall of 2013.”
Jasculca says District 97, like Komarek School, has been supportive of transgender students in terms of pronoun use and dress code preference.
“While a few parents and guardians have contacted us with questions about our practice regarding the use of the restrooms, the community’s overall response to our transgender student population has been incredibly positive and supportive,” Jasculca said.
One parent who has directly worked with District 97 and transgender policy is Sabrina Tellez, whose child was born biologically male and began socially transitioning to female as a kindergartener.
Until fourth grade, her child was using either the individual washroom in her classroom or one in the nurse’s office. Once her child was adamant in using the regular girls’ washroom, Tellez and her husband began having regular meetings with district officials.
“At that time, they had a policy not to allow that,” Tellez said. “After back and forth with the superintendent and school board president, they actually changed the policy so that she could use the girls’ bathroom.”
Even before her daughter reached middle school, Tellez knew she had to continue looking at ways to ensure the district would continue to support her daughter’s regular public bathroom use.
She says that being proactive has helped other parents with transgender children work with the district and also empower them. Tellez said that, overall, she did not receive much backlash from parents and that the district was quick to end any teasing of her daughter.
“I got very involved early on,” Tellez said. “I joined the PTO, called all the parents in her classroom and explained what gender variance was or transgender, and on curriculum night my husband and I would come early and meet with parents.”
Now in seventh grade, Tellez’s daughter has participated in sports and uses the girls’ locker room.
At press time, neither Komarek nor legal representatives for the North Riverside family would comment on the status of the pending lawsuit.