Bathrooms, locker rooms, and transgendered students have been in the news a lot of late. Amid the controversy, the federal government stepped in recently, sending out a letter to school districts across the country to give school administrators strong guidance about how to deal with transgendered students, whose gender identity is different from the one they were born with.
The letter, which was co-signed by the assistant secretary for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Education and the principal deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Department of Justice, informs school districts that “a school must not treat a transgender student differently from the way it treats other students of the same gender identity.”
According to the letter, the Title IX law, which was passed in 1972 and bans sex discrimination in schools, requires that when a student’s parent or guardian notifies a school’s administration that a student will assert a gender identity that differs from previous representations or records the school must then treat the student consistent with the student’s new gender identity. To do otherwise would be illegal discrimination, the letter states.
The letter says that no medical diagnosis or treatment can be required for the student to be treated under a new gender identity. It further states that a school must allow transgendered students to use bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity.
Access to bathrooms and locker rooms has raised concerns for some.
In 2015, the parents of an 8-year-old attending Komarek School in North Riverside sued to force the school to allow their child, who was born female but identifies as male, to use the boys’ bathroom.
The school had been letting the child use private or individual bathrooms as an accommodation, a solution that has been informally used by many schools but is now frowned upon by the federal government. The lawsuit is still pending, and District 94 Superintendent Brian Ganan declined to comment on it.
“The district strives to provide a supportive learning environment for all students, including transgender students,” Ganan said in an email. “Because many students benefit from having private facilities available, we have increased the availability of private restrooms over the past year and added privacy barriers throughout the restrooms. We are also investigating options to provide more privacy options for the locker rooms.”
In a highly publicized case this year Palatine High School District 211, under pressure from the federal government, agreed to allow a transgendered student who identifies as female use the girls’ locker room. Now the district is being sued by parents of other students who claim that their daughters’ privacy rights are being violated.
“There are concerns on both sides of the spectrum on the issue,” said Tim Walsh, a member of the Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208 Board of Education.
Meanwhile, Riverside-Brookfield High School Superintendent Kevin Skinkis said it is district policy to give all students equal opportunity.
“The school district has a policy providing that all students receive equal educational opportunities without regard to gender identity,” Skinkis said in an email. “We implement this by working individually with students and families to ensure that all students’ needs are met at school.”
Skinkis said the school has not had to address any specific issues involving transgendered students.
“We have not yet had to confront some of the challenging issues, for example around restroom access, that have been reported in the media coverage,” said Skinkis in an email. “Because our board policy already supports equal educational opportunities for all students, we do not anticipate changes to policy based on the federal guidance letter.”
An RBHS teacher told the Landmark that transgendered students have attended RBHS.
Walsh says that specific policies and practices regarding transgendered students must be thought out.
“It needs to be sorted out so that you can set some standards that pretty much everybody can live with,” said Walsh. “At the end of the day we’re waiting to see how the law develops, I think. So far as I know, we haven’t had anybody raise any complaints or concerns specifically about it.”
But one District 208 school board member, John Keen, criticized the federal government’s letter.
“Based on my research, this letter is a reinterpretation of a 44-year-old statute by an overreaching federal bureaucracy who did not follow proper procedure, and without the authority to do so,” said District 208 board member John Keen in an email. “The issue is not settled.”
Officials at Lyons Township High School said they have been informally accommodating transgendered students for years.
“I can say that we’ve always supported and accommodated our transgendered students for years and we certainly intend to work with their families and our students to create a safe and supportive environment, really for all the students,” said Tom Cushing the president of the Lyons Township High School District 204 Board of Education.
“It really does come down to a conversation with a transgendered student, their family and the administration in terms of coming to an agreement within our existing policies in terms for what’s in the best interests of the requesting family taking into account our responsibilities to the entire student population.”
Maria Rohloff, a paraeducator who is the adviser to PRISM, the gay-straight alliance club at LTHS, said that she is aware of three transgendered students attending LTHS and believes there are probably more.
“Not everybody wants everyone to know,” Rohloff said.
LTHS is in general a welcoming place for transgendered students and bathroom use is not a big issue, according to Rohloff.
“They use the bathroom they feel most comfortable in,” Rohloff said. “Lyons Township is really ahead of the game with that situation. They treat each student as an individual. They don’t treat them as ‘the transgendered students.’
“Each student can use whatever facility they’re most comfortable in and if they’re not comfortable making the choice, we do have gender-neutral options.”
Gender-neutral bathroom options at LTHS include coaches’ offices, the nurse’s office, and stalls within locker rooms.
Rohloff said that she does not think LTHS will have to make any changes as a result of the federal government’s letter.
“The word transgendered was added to our bullying policy several years ago,” Rohloff. “It’s kind of a non-issue here because we jumped in ahead of the game and because we have wonderful administrators who are understanding and have made provisions.”
Cushing, a lawyer, said the LTHS board will probably discuss the federal government’s letter and review its practices.
Officials at Riverside Elementary School District 96 and Brookfield-LaGrange Park Elementary School District 95 said that they are not aware of any transgendered students in their districts.