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Chicago School District That Violated Transgender Student’s Rights Settles With Federal Authorities

Township High School District 211 and the Department of Education still continue to offer different interpretations of its requirements.

Posted on December 3, 2015, at 6:59 p.m. ET

Larry French / Getty Images

Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for the Office Civil Rights (right), speaks at a panel in Washington, D.C. on October 1, 2015.

A transgender student can change her clothes inside the girls' locker rooms at a public school northwest of Chicago after a settlement was reached early Thursday morning between Township High School District 211 and the U.S. Department of Education.

But despite the agreement, the school district and federal officials differ on the implications of the deal — such as whether the settlement affects all transgender students in the district.

On November 3, the department's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) found Township High School had violated Title IX, which bans gender-based discrimination in public schools, for its treatment of the transgender student for the past two years.

OCR assistant secretary Catherine Lhamon told BuzzFeed News on Thursday that the settlement applies to all trans students in the district, not just the one who brought her complaint to the Department of Education in December 2013.

Education Department officials also said the settlement — which says the student may use a private area to change in the girls locker room — can also change in the locker room like other girls. "There is no requirement that she change in a private area," Department of Education press secretary Dorie Nolt told BuzzFeed News. "She said she plans to, but it is not required."

The student, referred to as Student A throughout the investigation, had requested the use of a private changing area within the girls' locker room, such as a restroom stall. The student argued that she needed access various locker rooms at her school for mandatory physical education classes, swim classes, and sports teams.

According to OCR's Nov. 3 ruling, the district superintendent had denied her request, citing the fact that there were too few stalls and too many students to accommodate her.

In doing so, the OCR found "by a preponderance of evidence" that the district had violated Title IX laws "for excluding Student A from participation in and denying her the benefits of its education program, providing services to her in a different manner, subjecting her to different rules of behavior, and subjecting her to different treatment on the basis of sex."

In the settlement, the school district has agreed to grant the student access to the girls' locker room at her high school and any other school in the district she visits, based on an earlier request to use private changing stations inside.

The district will also install "sufficient privacy curtains" in the locker rooms to "accommodate the transgender student and any students who wish to be assured of privacy." Students who request additional privacy apart from the curtains will have the option to change clothes elsewhere, according to the settlement.

Township High School District 211 will also work with a consultant who specializes in youth gender identity to ensure the terms of the resolution are sufficiently implemented.

However, according to the school district administration, the scope of the settlement will only affect one student.

"This agreement applies only to the student in the complaint," Township High School District 211 director of communications Thomas Petersen told BuzzFeed News. He called the OCR's assertion that it applies to all trans students "inaccurate." Petersen added that if a trans student other than the one mentioned in the ruling did not change clothes in a private changing room, they could face disciplinary action.

OCR's Lhamon said that this is not the case.

Student A's mother spoke to BuzzFeed News shortly after the OCR confirmed to her that the settlement applied to all transgender students. Her identity was withheld to ensure her daughter's privacy.

"I am very pleased that the OCR has taken the position it has, and reaffirmed our belief that she shouldn't be required to use privacy curtains," she said.

Student A's mother added that her daughter had been reprimanded by school authorities for using a girls' locker room, even when she was the only one in the room.

"It's been a long two and half years," she said.

The school board met Wednesday night to approve the Education Department's settlement offer, a meeting that ran into the early hours of Thursday.

Student A's mother said at least three students spoke in support of her daughter at the meeting. One student started a petition urging for the student's access to the girls' locker room.

The settlement is the latest in a series of clashes between the Obama administration and public schools over transgender students. The Department of Justice and the Department of Education, in lawsuits and settlements, has insisted that Title IX of the Education Act of 1972, which bans discrimination based on sex, therefore bans discrimination based on transgender status.

But some advocates say this latest settlement doesn't go far enough.

In a statement issued Thursday morning, the ACLU of Illinois, which represented the student, criticized Township High School District 211 for not supporting the extension of the new agreement to all transgender students.

John Knight, who directs the ACLU Illinois LGBT and HIV Project, called the oversight a "terrible mistake."

"No student should be labeled as different by their school, or denied full and equal participation at school with their peers," he said. "Yet that is precisely what District 211 says it will continue to do, no matter what the agreement actually says."

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.