ETHS struggles to enact transgender policy
September 22, 2016
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Asher White just wanted to use the bathroom. But after a “baffled” security guard at Evanston Township High School saw her exit the girls’ facility, she took an unexpected detour.
“I was escorted throughout the entire school, downstairs to the dean’s office where I sat in the waiting room for 10 minutes (until) the security guard reappeared and said ‘Ok, you can go,’” the transgender junior said.
ETHS, which serves more than 3,300 students from Evanston and Skokie, has no official policy on transgender students’ use of locker rooms and bathrooms. Instead, principal Marcus Campbell said the school employs a set of “procedures” to guide faculty and staff on the issue.
“Usually you have a policy, then you have procedures,” he said. “But given how quickly this is evolving and the amount of students coming in who identify this way, we needed to have some things in place. The policy would come later.”
Officials have been crafting a policy for more than a year, but a recent combination of student frustration and legal battles has reignited calls for clarity.
“Locker room #3”
Transgender students, whose gender identity differs from their biological sex, may use the bathroom of their choice but must request access to a separate locker room dubbed “locker room #3,” Campbell said.
The space, once an extension of the men’s locker room, sits farther away from the gym and is much smaller than conventional changing rooms.
Campbell said although the current procedure is not ideal, it remains the best way to make everyone feel comfortable and avoid legal ramifications. But students who have used “locker room #3” have said it is small, inconvenient and “alienating.”
“Locker room #3 doesn’t make me feel normalized,” White said. “It’s pretty alienating to be with all girls and suddenly have to segregate yourself and go off into this weird corridor … It feels intrusive and oppressive and weird.”
Rena Newman, a recent ETHS graduate who identifies as genderqueer — an identity which falls outside the categories of man and woman — and uses “they/them/their” pronouns, echoed White’s sentiments about the space.
“You have to go through a number of hoops to get the key for it, it’s really isolated from other people, and it feels uncomfortable to be in there,” Newman said. “And if you identify as binary trans, you can’t use the locker room that is most comfortable for you.”
ETHS’ procedures for gendered spaces are largely unclear and publicly undocumented. Students, teachers and administrators who spoke to The Daily shared different interpretations of the procedures and none could point to any public documentation.
Additionally, without proper guidelines in place, some say ETHS cannot consistently enforce its procedures, which were created by the current administration.
“One of the reasons to have an official policy is to provide some layer of protection,” said ETHS science teacher and Teachers’ Council president Bill Farmer (Weinberg ’03). “These practices are in place because people are supportive, but in the event that you would have new leadership … they may have a slightly different perspective.”
Farmer, who has worked with students on the issue, added that an official policy would convey that ETHS took its transgender students seriously.
Earlier this year, ETHS seemed set to implement an official policy that was not shared with the public. The policy had been drafted last fall in conjunction with local education experts, Campbell said. But on Aug. 8, the board canceled a meeting to discuss the issue citing recent legal developments in federal court over policies to address transgender students in public schools. Since then, the board has remained largely silent on the issue.
Board president Pat Savage-Williams would not comment for this article.
Farmer said a draft of the new policy had been presented to ETHS officials last fall. Earlier this year, he said, school officials signaled the policy would be in place by summer.
“It is extremely frustrating,” Farmer said, “especially since I thought we were actually finalized with it, which was what had been communicated in multiple venues.”
Campbell said although he understood the frustration, ETHS had to remain cautious until courts passed down a definitive ruling.
“We’re trying to figure out how to navigate this legal terrain when the environment is so in flux,” he said. “Our attorneys are advising us not to be out of step.”
Illinois came into the national spotlight earlier this year when 51 families sued the federal government and Palatine-based Township High School District 211 for its practice on allowing transgender students access to bathrooms and locker rooms of their choosing, a case ETHS officials said they were watching closely.
In December, the district, facing pressure and loss of funding from the Department of Education, had allowed a transgender girl to change in a girls’ locker room, prompting legal action.
Jocelyn Floyd, an attorney from the Thomas More Society who represents the families, said the district’s policy violated “an individual’s reasonable right to privacy” and made her clients feel uncomfortable.
“When you’re talking about these private facilities for girls — for their intimate activities in a bathroom, in a shower, in a locker room, in a hotel room, in a dorm — they have the right to have their privacy respected,” Floyd said.
Floyd said much of the debate hinges on the language behind Title IX, a law which protects people from discrimination based on sex. Floyd in her lawsuit argues that the term “sex” does not include gender identity and instead should be based on “biological objective scientific fact.”
However, Ed Yohnka, director of communications and public policy at the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents “Student A,” a transgender student in District 211, said gender is a multi-dimensional decision of which sex is only a factor.
“(The plaintiffs) fail to recognize that gender identity is determined by a whole series of factors, one of which — but not exclusively — may be biology,” he said. “And the reality is that people often are not the gender that they were identified at birth.”
In May, the Obama administration sent a letter to public schools across the country mandating access to bathrooms that best align with students’ gender identity. A federal court in Texas temporarily halted the directive more than three months later.
Proponents of the directive say it represents a strong reaffirmation of civil rights, while opponents say the administration has overstepped its legal authority.
What has ensued is a series of protracted legal battles across the nation that some lawyers say can only be resolved by the Supreme Court.
“The issue is being fought across the country of how best to protect the privacy rights of everyone involved, and we do anticipate that one of these cases very soon will end up in front of the Supreme Court,” Floyd said.
“A holding pattern”
At ETHS, officials said they could not provide a timeline for the drafted policy’s enactment, but suggested they would not act until courts clarified the law.
But lawyers on both sides of the Palatine case said it could take months, if not years, to reach a precedent-setting ruling.
Kai Joy, a recent ETHS graduate who identifies as genderqueer and uses “they/them/their” pronouns, said administrators were generally sympathetic to the issue but rarely took action.
“Evanston always tries to play that card of being this diverse, welcoming place,” Joy said. “In a lot of cases it is pretty welcoming, but at the same time that allows the administration and student body to be a bit complacent in terms of forms of oppression that do exist.”
When Joy attended ETHS from 2011 to 2015, they said a policy on transgender students always seemed “shrouded in mystery.” Joy said they never felt like the administration recognized the importance of such an issue.
“As an educational institution it’s your job to ensure that you’re providing the best environment for every student to get an education,” Joy said. “By not instituting these policies, ETHS is failing to do so.”
Students and faculty echoed Joy’s sentiments that although administrators expressed sympathy for the issue, many had brushed it aside and delayed action. At the same time, many of the same students and teachers who criticized the administration also praised Campbell for his outspoken advocacy.
Campbell said he was aware of the criticism and asked for patience as ETHS worked past its legal “holding pattern.”
“We’re kind of just waiting things out right now,” Campbell said. “But there’s been some discussion about do we really need the law to tell us what to do … We just want to make sure that we’re within the parameters with the legal climate.”
White, however, said she has waited long enough.
“Everyone’s nice, but also deceivingly difficult,” the transgender junior said. “It’s hard to take issue … when people are smiling at you and then saying you’re not allowed to have the privileges that every other student has … It’s weird for someone to be like, ‘I respect you as an individual. Also, I don’t respect your gender.’”
Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Palatine-based Township High School District 211 as District 21. The Daily regrets the error.