Chicago Public Schools Expand Guidelines For Transgender Students

May 6, 2016
Originally published on May 10, 2016 4:02 pm
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The third-largest school district in the U.S. took a firmer stand this week in the national debate on transgender rights. Chicago Public Schools made it clear that students are free to use the restrooms and locker rooms of their gender identity. And in a nearby suburb, parent took their school district to court over a similar decision. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Palatine, Ill., is about 30 miles northwest of Chicago. It's been five months now since protests and negotiations over locker room access for a transgender student in the school district came to an end. Township High School District 211 approved a deal with the U.S. Department of Education to permit a student who was born male but identities as female to use the girls' locker room and install privacy stalls. Attorney Jocelyn Floyd says the agreement undermines the educational experiences of the district's female students.

JOCELYN FLOYD: Because they have to live with this fear of potentially being exposed to a biological male in locker rooms or bathrooms every day at school.

CORLEY: Floyd, who works for the Thomas Moore Society, filed a federal lawsuit this week against the school district. She represents several parents and students unhappy with the deal, even though it ended the threat of district 211 losing millions of dollars in Title IX federal funds. Floyd argues the government's inclusion of gender identity under Title IX, which protects against discrimination based on sex, is unlawful. And attorney Jeremy Tedesco with the religious advocacy group the Alliance Defending Freedom says the district is sending a wrongheaded message.

JEREMY TEDESCO: That people who disagree with this policy, who objective to it, who assert their privacy interests are narrow-minded and just need to be educated and get with the program. That is not an appropriate response.

CORLEY: District 211's superintendent says there's been no incident or issue since the policy was put into place. Thirty miles away, there was virtually no argument when, this week, the Chicago school district expanded and clarified its guidelines for schools and transgender students.

JANICE JACKSON: We're not trying to change people's hearts and mind. We're not trying to challenge anybody's religious beliefs.

CORLEY: That's the Chicago Public School's chief education officer, Dr. Janice Jackson. She says the guidelines set a district-wide policy that makes it clear that transgender students can use restrooms they feel match their gender identity. The policy also provides more clarity about overnight trips so there's no confusion about whether transgender students can participate. And it also provides protections for transgender adults who work, volunteer or participate in district programs.

JACKSON: I don't know that everybody's going to agree with the guidelines, but I think everybody would agree that every child needs to be safe and feel safe when they come to school. And that's really the overarching message.

CORLEY: Jackson spoke at an event at a Chicago high school. Nata Thompson was also there. Her son is still in elementary school, but Thompson said she welcomes Chicago's new transgender policy.

NATA THOMPSON: It's about equal rights, period. So it's going to happen anyway, so all the opposition for what? We got kids dying in the street right now, so let's focus on something else that's really, you know, the bigger issue, not about a bathroom.

CORLEY: The Illinois Safe Schools Alliance is one of several organizations that worked with the Chicago school district to fashion the new transgender policy. Alliance attorney Owen Daniel-McCarter says Chicago may have had less controversy over its policy because the district, with nearly 400,000 students, has many resources.

OWEN DANIEL-MCCARTER: Like, the legal department can research questions, like what do we have to do around bathrooms, which can be a barrier for some smaller districts that don't have the funds or an in-house legal department. But also, other districts are doing this.

CORLEY: With the goal, he says, of making sure that transgender students graduate from school, which, statistically, they've been less likely to do. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.