KENOSHA — The Kenosha Unified School Board approved a settlement in the case of a transgender student who wanted to use the boys' restroom. The school board voted Tuesday night, Jan. 9 to settle with Ash Whitaker for $800,000; it's an outcome some say will make waves nationwide.
"I think Ash's case is precedent setting nationwide," said Shelley Gregory, who works as the transgender resource specialist at the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center.
With Whitaker's case now settled, Gregory said it's a victory for the transgender community.
"We now have a decision that stands from the 7th Circuit that says students must be allowed to use restrooms that correspond with their gender identity," said Gregory.
Gregory referred to the May ruling by a 7th Circuit federal appeals court, which sided with Whitaker, who was born female but identifies as a male. In its ruling, the court wrote:
“The School District has not produced any evidence that any students have ever complained about Ash’s presence in the boys’ restroom.”
Whitaker sued the Kenosha Unified School District in 2016, claiming the district isolated and humiliated him by not letting him use the boys' restroom.
Gregory said policies that keep students from using restrooms corresponding with their gender identity harm the transgender student.
"We see that those youth become isolated, stigmatized," Gregory said. "It may increase bullying they’re already receiving for being different."
The district filed a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court in August before eventually reaching an $800,000 settlement with Whitaker in December. The school board approved the non-monetary part of the settlement Tuesday: that Whitaker could continue using the men's restroom on the district campus whenever he returns as an alumnus.
In a statement, Ronald Stadler, the lawyer for the district, said the settlement "was approved by the insurance company in light of mounting legal costs and the risk of potential exposure of several million dollars if the parties continued to litigate to the end of the lawsuit, which could take a few years."
Stadler added that of the $800,000 sum, taxpayers would pay $25,000 of it - the amount of the deductible on the insurance policy taken out when Whitaker sued - with the rest covered by the insurance company. Stadler said $625,000 of the settlement award would go toward Whitaker's attorneys fees with the rest going to Whitaker.
Ash Whitaker issued the following statement, which was released through the Oakland-based Transgender Law Center, which represented Whitaker in the lawsuit:
“I am deeply relieved that this long, traumatic part of my life is finally over and I can focus on my future and simply being a college student. Winning this case was so empowering and made me feel like I can actually do something to help other trans youth live authentically. My message to other trans kids is to respect themselves and accept themselves and love themselves. If someone’s telling you that you don’t deserve that, prove them wrong.”
The settlement approved by the board applies only to Whitaker. Transgender advocates, such as Gregory, said the appeals court ruling in May applies to all students in the 7th circuit - Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana. With this case settled, they said any challenge would have to come in a new case.
When asked if KUSD currently allows students to use restrooms that correspond with their gender identity, the district's communications director, Tanya Ruder, replied with a statement attributed to Stadler. The statement does not answer that question directly.
"The District has and continues to work diligently with students and their families to address unique needs and accommodations," Stadler's statement read.