A transgender student in Minnesota and his mother are filing suit against his former school district after he was denied access to the boys’ locker room.
A lawsuit filed in Minnesota’s Tenth Judicial District on Monday claims the Anoka-Hennepin School District violated the civil rights of a trans student who was abruptly denied the ability to access restrooms and changing facilities that match his gender identity.
In February 2016, the plaintiff — identified as “N.H.” in court documents — was abruptly informed he would no longer be able to change alongside his male classmates on the swim team at Coon Rapids High School. A suit filed by Gender Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota claims the student used the boys’ locker room for months with no incidents or complaints.
At the time, N.H. was a freshman at Anoka-Hennepin schools. The largest district in Minnesota, it’s located to the northwest of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
But while school districts in the neighboring Twin Cities allow trans students to use facilities that feel most appropriate for them, Anoka-Hennepin makes decisions about locker room and bathroom access on a “case-by-case basis.”
Christy Hall, a senior staff attorney for Gender Justice, told LGBTQ Nation those decisions were made arbitrarily and with little transparency. According to Hall, the school board “internally [debates] which restroom and which locker room a child gets to use” without asking the student or the family what is best.
“This violates his civil rights and the civil rights of other LGBTQ students because the school board is not letting them make the decision about what locker room or restroom they feel safest in,” she said in a phone conversation.
In a statement, ACLU of Minnesota Staff Attorney David McKinney added that the Anoka-Hennepin School District deprived the student of “equal access to education” and that its actions served to “discriminate against him and ostracize him based on his gender identity.”
“The board singled him out,” he added in a Monday press conference.
N.H. and his mother, referred to as J.H., say the sudden decree upended the student’s life. Before school board decided to refuse him access to the boys’ locker room, he had been accepted by his classmates at Coon Rapids. His swim coach worked with him to find appropriate attire for matches. He was happy and healthy — a model student.
However, N.H. would be hospitalized following a series of mental health crises. Although the school board decided to temporarily reverse its ruling to allow him to finish out the season, it was too late. He was no longer able to compete.
As the school board continued to debate the policy, his family began to receive concerning hate letters in the mail. He began to be bullied in school.
His attorneys hold Anoka-Hennepin responsible for that treatment.
“Transgender students are two to three times more likely to experience daily verbal and physical harassment, and more than half attempt suicide,” claimed Gender Justice Executive Director Megan Peterson in a press release.
“As adults, we have an obligation to protect these kids. Anoka-Hennepin School District has a legal duty to protect its students.”
Hall agreed that the district’s policies set the tone for the behavior of students and even faculty and staff. When members of the school board single out trans students, the schools they represent listen.
“It sends a signal to people who don’t want to be welcoming that it’s OK to behave badly,” she said.
Although a 2017 toolkit Minnesota Department of Education encourages schools to provide a “safe and supportive school environment” for trans students, Anoka-Hennepin remains “confident” the district’s “actions conform with state and federal law.”
“Plans for accommodation for restroom and locker room use are made in consultation with school building administrators, the Title IX coordinator, and superintendent in compliance with state and federal law,” the district said in a press release. “This approach is consistent with guidance from the National School Boards Association and the Minnesota School Boards Association.”
Privacy is an “important consideration” for all students at Anoka-Hennepin, the district added.
Attorneys filed the complaint in Anoka County District Court because they wanted the case to clear up “confusion” for local school districts after Donald Trump’s Department of Education rescinded best practices for trans students issued under Obama.
It’s easy for anti-LGBTQ groups to “take advantage of that confusion” without clear guidance in place, Hall said.
“That’s one of the things that happened at the school board level in this case — the Alliance Defending Freedom and Minnesota Family Council wrote an open letter to the Anoka-Hennepin encouraging them to violate trans students’ rights,” she claimed.
“I worry that school boards that aren’t looking carefully at this don’t have a very clear signal that this is illegal.”
Whatever the outcome of the case, it won’t affect N.H. He transferred schools after Anoka-Hennepin attempted to strike a compromise by forcing him to use an “enhanced privacy locker room.” It was a segregated locker room with a separate entrance that only one student has the ability to access at a time.
N.H. is now attending a small charter school with decreased opportunities to participate in school sports.
While his attorneys claimed their client was deprived of the “normal high school experience that he wanted,” N.H.’s family said this case is also about all the students who walk in the doors of Coon Rapids High School after him.
“It’s important for me to be a voice for the voiceless and send the message, once again, that discrimination is wrong,” J.H. claimed in a statement. “Every child who goes to high school should have the opportunity to get a good education, to be an athlete and participate in extracurricular activities. They should never have to question their safety based on their identity.”
This isn’t the first time Anoka-Hennepin has faced complaints about its policies for LGBTQ students. It was placed on a five-year consent decree in 2012 after nine students reportedly took their lives in two years. Lawsuits filed against the school cited a pervasive culture of bullying and harassment.
The probationary period expired in March 2017, just over a year after N.H. was initially barred access to the boys’ locker room.