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Anoka-Hennepin School District, Board sued for barring trans teen from locker rooms

Anoka-Hennepin is "confident" that its "actions conform with state and federal law.”

Anoka-Hennepin is "confident" that its "actions conform with state and federal law.” Joshua Hoehne, Unsplash.com

It was the winter of 2016. The Coon Rapids High School boys’ swim team had three meets left in the season. That’s when N.H., a freshman swimmer, got pulled out of class by one of his teachers. He was told that the Anoka-Hennepin School Board had decided that he was no longer allowed to use the same locker room as the other boys before swim meets.

N.H. isn’t the boy’s real name. A complaint filed against the district and the school board on Monday just calls him that for the sake of his safety and privacy. But the crux of the issue is that N.H. is trans.

According to the complaint, he’s known he was a boy since he was little. Before he even enrolled in Coon Rapids in the fall of 2015, he’d been living his life pretty much like any other male teenager. He dressed like a boy. He wore his hair like a boy. He went by male pronouns (like “he” and “him”). He took on a more traditionally male name. And since then, things had been going really well. His teachers and coaches liked him, he had friends, and his grades were pretty good -- which is why this news caught him off guard.

The Board later reversed its decision and allowed N.H. to change in the same facilities for the rest of the season. But beyond that point, he would no longer be welcome in the boys’ locker room. Four days later, he was hospitalized because of “mental health concerns.” He stayed there for almost two weeks.

N.H.’s mom wrote an email to the board shortly before he was released asking them to put some gender inclusion policies in place. She said “staff and administrators had been doing their jobs by welcoming N.H., and that the Board had improperly interfered,” the complaint says.

The response from Board Chair Tom Heidermann expressed that he was “truly sorry to hear of [N.H.]’s recent hospitalization,” but that there should be separated facilities to “transgender and non-transgendered students.”

It’s unclear who those separate facilities would be helping, but it’s almost certainly not N.H. and other trans kids. A 2017 study of trans youth in Minnesota reported that forcing them to use segregated facilities made them feel “ostracized” or “othered.” Some would avoid drinking or eating so they wouldn’t have to use the bathroom at all. Some would “hold it in” for hours rather than risk a confrontation.

And feeling “othered” or unwelcome (not to mention physically uncomfortable) most of the time takes a toll. More than half of all trans kids living in Minnesota attempted suicide between 2014 and 2015, according to a study by the Minnesota Department of Education, and they have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and self-harm.

Less than three weeks after being released from the hospital -- and the day before the board was supposed to have a meeting about where and when and whether he would be allowed to change in a locker room -- N.H. was admitted again for his mental health.

A year passed. Coon Rapids remodeled its locker rooms with new “enhanced privacy” changing areas. It had its own separate entrance, a separate toilet, and separate showers. According to the complaint, that spring, the board mandated that N.H. should use the new segregated room instead of the regular boys’ locker room from now on.

He tried to ignore it and use the same locker room as his friends anyway. A Coon Rapids staff member called the boy’s mom at work and told her if he kept that up, he’d be disciplined.

That spring, N.H. was hospitalized for his mental health a third time. That was enough for his mom. She transferred him out of the Anoka-Hennepin School District while he was still in the hospital.

Now, Gender Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are suing Anoka-Hennepin and its board on his behalf, saying his treatment constituted a violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act. They’re hoping to get the board to make its policies more inclusive for students like N.H., and damages in excess of $50,000.

“Denying N.H. use of the same locker rooms as other boys deprives him of equal access to education, programming, and extracurricular activities like sports,” ACLU Staff Attorney David McKinney said in a statement. It called the whole ordeal “unconstitutional” and “unnecessary.”

The district sent a statement saying the “use of restrooms and locker rooms is determined on a case-by-case basis,” and that the goal is “to ensure that all students feel safe and comfortable.” Since information “regarding individual students” is considered private, it said, it won’t be commenting on that. However:

“Anoka-Hennepin is confident our actions conform with state and federal law.”

N.H.’s attorneys told the Pioneer Press that they don’t know what caused the school board to interfere in the first place -- whether anyone had actually complained about N.H. being in the locker room. But as his mother told the Press, by doing so, they made it personal.

“I didn’t choose this battle. The school board chose us,” she said. “They have robbed him of a normal high school experience.”