Appeals court rules against Minnesota school district in 'landmark' bias case

©Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

The Minnesota Court of Appeals has ruled that a transgender student at Coon Rapids High School has the right to use the boys' locker room. - Dreamstime/Dreamstime/TNS

MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Court of Appeals on Monday ruled that a transgender student at Coon Rapids High School had a right to use the boys’ locker room.

Instead, the Anoka-Hennepin School District had directed the student, N.H., to use an “enhanced privacy” bathroom separate from the boys’ locker room in violation of the state’s human rights act, the court said in a decision filed Monday.

The state Department of Human Rights called it a landmark ruling.

“This decision means that schools are now safer and more welcoming for transgender and gender nonconforming students across Minnesota,” Human Rights Deputy Commissioner Irina Vaynerman said in a statement.

The Court of Appeals also referred to the statewide significance of the Anoka County case.

“An estimated 24,250 adults in Minnesota identify as transgender, all of whom were high school students at some point,” the court said.

Anoka-Hennepin said in a statement it was reviewing the decision and carefully considering its next steps.

“The district’s top priority is maintaining a learning environment that is safe, secure and free from discrimination, and its decision will be guided by those values,” the district said.

N.H. was a member of the boys’ swim team in 2015-16 and had used the boys’ locker room for much of that season before the district moved to halt the practice.

His mother sued the district alleging discrimination in February 2019, and six months later, Anoka County District Judge Jenny Walker Jasper rejected the district’s effort to have the case dismissed — setting the stage for Monday’s decision.

The district based its argument in part on a reading of the employment provision of the state’s human rights act, which also has a provision covering education.

In 2001, the district said, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that an employer’s designation of employee restrooms based on biological gender did not violate the human rights act.

But N.H., joined in the case by the state Department of Human Rights, highlighted the education provision, which bars discrimination based on sexual orientation in school settings.

In its decision, the Court of Appeals used what it described as the “plain language” of the education provision to conclude that “requiring a transgender student to use a different locker-room facility because of his sexual orientation is discrimination.”

Judge Matthew E. Johnson, in a dissenting opinion, noted the 2001 Supreme Court ruling stated the Legislature probably did not intend to bar employers from designating workplace shower and locker room facilities by gender.

“There is no reason to believe that the Legislature’s likely intention is any different with respect to shower and locker room facilities in schools,” he wrote.

Anoka-Hennepin constructed the enhanced privacy bathroom in the summer of 2016 as part of a locker-room remodeling.

The student’s lawsuit stated he was the only one required to use the bathroom and changing area, and that no other enhanced privacy locker rooms were created elsewhere in the state’s largest school district.

In 2016 and 2017, N.H. was hospitalized three times for “mental health concerns” before he decided during the third hospital stay to transfer out of the Anoka-Hennepin district, according to last year’s district court ruling.

The case is being returned to district court for additional proceedings.

Last year, Jasper ruled that N.H. could seek punitive damages.

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©2020 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)