The Martinsville public school district has been ordered to allow a transgender middle school student to use the school restroom that aligns with his gender identity.
Chief Judge Tanya Walton Pratt entered the injunction in favor of 13-year-old A.C. and against Martinsville schools on Friday in A.C., a minor child, by his next friend, mother and legal guardian, M.C. v. Metropolitan School District of Martinsville, and Principal, John R. Wooden Middle School, in his official capacity, 1:21-cv-02965.
A.C., a student at John R. Wooden Middle School in Martinsville, sued the school district after he was repeatedly denied access to the boys’ restroom on campus. A.C. was born female but has identified as male since he was 8 years old, publicly presenting himself as male since he was 9. He has been granted a legal name change, although his gender marker request was denied by the Morgan Superior Court last month.
A.C. has been diagnosed with gender dysphoria and is being treated by the Gender Health Clinic at Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis. He has begun taking medication for menstrual suppression and, according to court documents, hopes to begin taking male hormones in the near future.
When A.C. began attending John R. Wooden Middle School, he was permitted to use the single-sex restroom in the school’s medical clinic but not the boys’ restroom. But according to A.C., this accommodation made him feel singled out and often caused him to be late for class, which could have resulted in discipline.
The situation resulted in A.C. experiencing anxiety, depression and stigmatization, according to Pratt’s order, so A.C.’s stepfather specifically requested that A.C. be allowed to use the boys’ restroom. The school district declined.
Next, A.C.’s mother, M.C., contacted Indianapolis-based transgender advocacy group GenderNexus, which set up a meeting with A.C.’s family and the school district to once again ask for A.C. to be allowed to use the boys’ restroom. The school district again declined but agreed not to discipline A.C. if he was late to class because he had to use the restroom in the clinic. The school also offered to let A.C. switch to remote learning.
A.C., however, began using the boys’ restroom despite the school’s denial of his request. He did so for three weeks and, during that time, claimed to “(feel) better about himself.”
While no students complained about A.C.’s use of the boys’ restroom, a staff member reported the situation to school administration. A.C. was subsequently told that he would be punished if he continued to use the boys’ restroom. Additionally, his mother was told to contact the school board if she wanted A.C. to continue using the restroom that aligned with his gender identity.
“Though it was never mentioned to A.C. or his parents prior to initiating this litigation, the School District has an unofficial policy for allowing transgender students to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity on a ‘case-by-case’ basis,” Pratt wrote. “The factors used by the School District in making these decisions include how long the student has identified as transgender; whether the student is under a physician’s care; if the student has been diagnosed with gender dysphoria; if the student is prescribed hormones; and if the student has filed for a legal name and gender marker change.”
When A.C. learned of the policy, he submitted documentation from Dr. Dennis Fortenberry, the supervising doctor at the Gender Health Clinic. Fortenberry has not directly spoken with A.C., and the school district did not grant A.C. access to the boys’ restroom after receiving the doctor’s documentation.
In his preliminary injunction motion, A.C. pointed to Whitaker ex rel. Whitaker v. Kenosha Unified School District No. 1 Bd. Of Education, 858 F.3d 1034 (7th Cir. 2017), which held that “a school policy that subjects transgender students to different rules, sanctions, and treatment than non-transgender students violates Title IX” of the Education Amendments of 1972. He argued the school district was violating Whitaker and his rights under both Title IX and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
The school district, however, pointed to Bostock v. Clayton Cnty., Georgia, 140 S. Ct. 1731 (2020), which extended the protections in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to discrimination based on sexual orientation.
“While the Seventh Circuit looked to Title VII in deciding Whitaker, the School District contends that in Bostock, the (Supreme) court expressly declined to extend its ruling as it pertained to sex discrimination in the workplace (which is prohibited by Title VII) to issues pertaining to sex assigned restrooms and locker rooms (which are expressly permitted by Title IX),” Pratt wrote. “… (T)he School District argues that the Whitaker analysis assumed that the sex stereotyping framework borrowed from Title VII applies in the Title IX restroom context, which Bostock does not embrace.”
The district court, however, determined Whitaker “remains good law and thus is binding on this court,” adding that the school district was “confusing” its Title IX compliance with A.C.’s allegations.
“A.C.’s claims are based on the School District’s treatment of him as an individual, not a complaint that the School District lacks the appropriate facilities,” Pratt wrote in granting the preliminary injunction. “A.C. has not requested that additional facilities be built, or the current ones be redesignated in any way. Rather, he is seeking to use those facilities that already exist and align with his gender identity; his claim is solely that the School District is forbidding him from doing so.”
Further, the district court determined that A.C. would suffer irreparable harm if the school district continued to deny him access to the boys’ restroom and that the balance of harms weighed in his favor.
“In support of his Motion, A.C. provided a declaration in which he described feeling stigmatized and that being excluded from the boys’ restrooms ‘worsens the anxiety and depression’ caused by his gender dysphoria and makes him feel isolated,” the court held. “He affirms that the School District’s decision ‘makes being at school painful.’ A.C.’s mother also reported that the issues with the restroom have been emotionally harmful to A.C. and that she is concerned for the possible medical risks associated with him trying not to use the restroom during school.
“Like other courts recognizing the potential harm to transgender students, this Court find no reason to question the credibility of A.C.’s account and that the negative emotional consequences with being refused access to the boys’ restroom constitute irreparable harm that would be ‘difficult — if not impossible — to reverse,’” Pratt continued.
“… While acknowledging that the public interest favors furthering individual privacy interests, the Court does not believe that granting A.C. access to the boys’ restroom threatens those interests. The restrooms at the middle school have stalls and as argue(d) by A.C.’s counsel, restrooms are an area where people are usually private which minimizes exposure of a student’s body to the opposite sex.”
A.C. is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana and Indiana Legal Services.
In a statement following Pratt’s ruling, ILS attorney Megan Stuart said A.C.’s “worries should be about things like homework and friendships, not whether he can use a restroom.”
“We hope that public schools and legislators will take notice and forgo future challenges by providing equal treatment to all students,” Stevie Pactor, an attorney with the ACLU of Indiana, said in a statement.
The Martinsville school district is represented by attorneys with Bose McKinney & Evans LLP in Indianapolis. Counsel for the school district did not respond to a request for comment by Indiana Lawyer deadline.
The ACLU of Indiana has filed multiple lawsuits against Indiana public school districts in recent months alleging violations of the rights of transgender students.