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School Board Approves Controversial Deal In Transgender Student Case

After months of negotiations, the battle over locker room access for a transgender student in Illinois ended late last night when Township High School District 211 — about 30 miles northwest of Chicago — approved a deal with the Department of Education.

For nearly three hours, the board met in a closed session — ultimately voting yes on the agreement which allows the transgender student to use private areas within the locker room.

While the agreement ends the threat of the district losing millions of dollars in Title IX federal funds, some parents were disappointed.

Parents pack the high school cafeteria in anticipation of the District 211 school board decision yesterday. Many were angered by the agreement, but supporters were also in attendance.
Cheryl Corley / NPR
Parents pack the high school cafeteria in anticipation of the District 211 school board decision yesterday. Many were angered by the agreement, but supporters were also in attendance.

About 400 people — mostly adults and a few students — filled row after row of folding chairs in a high school cafeteria turned into an auditorium for District 211's special school board meeting.

The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights ruled last month the school district had violated federal law by not allowing a student who was born a male and identifies as female full access to the girls' locker room.

Jessica Miller, who has a 16-year-old daughter in the school district, was one of many parents urging the board to keep that policy in place.

"I keep hearing the majority of the students are on board with this. Well, I spoke with my daughter and the majority of their friends, and believe me, that is not true. Our girls are feeling helpless, but they refuse to speak out because they fear retaliation from those that are very vocal," Miller says.

The ACLU helped the student file a federal complaint against the district two years ago and the Office of Civil Rights told the district it had violated the Title IX law that banned sex discrimination — a charge Miller and others called an overreach by the government.

"We are just parents with a mission to protect our children's rights and privacy and their well-being," Miller says.

But Hannah Garst, whose two children will attend the same high school as the transgender student, says it was the school district that was overreaching.

"If privacy is the issue, then let's solve that issue by giving privacy to everyone and requiring everyone to use discretion when undressing or changing," Garst says.

Students in the district, like 17-year-old Jake Lytle, told the board members to think about what sort of history they wanted to make as they faced difficult questions — as other boards have in the past.

"Should they integrate a school or continue with the forced separation of people by race? Should students who are openly gay and lesbian be welcomed and protected from discrimination and harassment?" Lytle says.

Lytle says the board should be as bold and accept the settlement it negotiated with the Department of Education.

Those who stayed to wait for the decision said they felt betrayed.

District 211's Superintendent Daniel Cates says he understands the disappointment, but that the agreement is not a district-wide policy.

"This agreement pertains to a single student. And in doing so, we believe that we have safeguarded not only our ability to move forward with other students, but also to safeguard other districts that would like to make their decisions locally," Cates says.

Cates says that in developing the policy, the community and the board struggled with an extremely sensitive situation. Federal officials have to sign off on the deal.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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.
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