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Illinois School Battles Feds Over Transgendered Student Civil Rights Complaint

A man who complained the decision of his suburban Chicago school board in Palatine, Ill., to allow a transgendered boy to shower in a high school girls’ locker room spoke for hundreds of angry parents when he said, “The rights of this one person are trumping the rights of everyone else.”

Hundreds of others at two raucous school board meetings voiced support for the boy who now considers himself to be a girl. They called the very idea of locker rooms, and showers divided by gender lines, to be nothing less than “institutionalized segregation.”

Jake Lytle, a student in District 211, spoke in support of his fellow student and urged district officials to “choose boldly and make history.”

As emotional as the debate between parents was, it was an argument between the people running Palatine-based School District 211 and representatives from the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights that threatened to prevent the boy from taking what he now believes to his true gender into the girls’ locker room.

Both sides thought the deal was done and they had reached a bureaucratic rapprochement to let the transgendered boy shower with the girls — behind privacy curtains — until school district officials accused the Office of Civil Rights of misrepresenting the agreement as applying to all students, not just the boy identified only as “Student A.”

Daniel Cates, the superintendent of District 211, issued a scathing statement Dec. 3 accusing one OCR negotiator in particular of telling the media what they wanted the agreement to be, rather than what was agreed to by the OCR and the district’s board of education.

“We are outraged by the mischaracterizations in the press by Catherine Lhamon of the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), and her blatant disregard for the facts of the negotiated agreement,” Cates said.

“It is wrong, it is an act of bad faith, and our school district will not let it stand,” he added.

Mucia Burke, the president of the District 211 school board, said she, too, was outraged by Lhamon’s statements to the media.

“It was both shocking and disappointing when, virtually minutes after our vote, senior representatives from OCR seemed confused about the terms of the agreement to media – and then subsequently in a letter to us,” said Burke. “It caused a lot of concern and questions in our community.”

At issue was whether the agreement applied only to the aforementioned “Student A” and whether he would be required to shower behind privacy curtains.

There was also a concern, as hundreds of parents feared, that any student claiming to be transgendered could switch locker rooms and have unrestricted access to the showers.

On top of that was the worry that the school district would be forced to admit it had violated sex discrimination laws and regulations.

Burke said the final agreement was “a common sense compromise with which the OCR agreed. It was based on the fact that gender is not the same as anatomy — and that we are dealing with teenagers,” and wondered why the Office of Civil Rights couldn’t understand that.

Cates threatened to tear the deal up and force everyone back to the starting line, or perhaps to a courtroom.

Lhamon, who is the assistant secretary for civil rights in the U.S. Education Department, backed down four days later. She assured Cates that the agreement only applied to “Student A” and, perhaps more importantly, the district had not violated any federal laws or regulations by keeping the boy in the boys’ locker room.

Burke assured parents that “Student A” is going to have to stay behind district-installed privacy curtains. He is not going to mingle with girls in the showers.

“If the student didn’t comply, access would be rescinded,” she said.

As stormy as the past two years have been since "Student A" filed a civil rights complaint against the school district, and acknowledging the debate continues, Burke said it probably has all been for the best.

“We believe this is the best course of action for this student while balancing the needs of all the teenage students in our District,” she said. “The privacy and comfort of all of our students are paramount.”

The deal is done in District 211.

Catherine Lhamon and her Office for Civil Rights compatriots get to go home to Washington D.C. But Mucia Burke and Dan Cates still have to live and work in a school system divided by one transgendered student.

“The OCR made an already very difficult, passionate and emotional issue very confusing with their apparent misstatements and lack of clarity in describing the agreement,” Burke explained.

Cates said District 211 did what it had to do because of federal regulations under Title IX’s nondiscrimination provisions based on sex.

But he also pointed out Lhamon and her fellow feds didn’t make it any easier.

“Citizens have a right to expect more from a federal agency than smoke and mirrors.”