This week, the board of Kenosha Unified School District in Kenosha, Wisconsin voted 5-2 in favor of paying a settlement of $800,000 in a lawsuit case that began in 2016 when a transgender student claimed that the school discriminated against him, down to monitoring his bathroom trips.
The high school student, Ashton Whitaker, born female but identifies as a male, who attended George Nelson Tremper High School, claimed in the lawsuit that staff had singled him out from other students, prohibiting him from using the boy's restroom and making him wear a green wristband so staff could monitor him more easily.
During the case, Whitaker did at no point present evidence of the allegations, and the district has strongly denied the claims. Ron Stadler, the district's attorney from the Milwaukee-based firm Mallery and Zimmerman, said that Whitaker was consistently treated in a legal manner by the school district.
In August, the KUSD filed a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking it to overturn a 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in May. The ruling instituted an injunction allowing Whitaker to use male-only bathrooms at Tremper High during his remaining time there. However, the petition was dropped when a settlement was agreed upon.
“To this point, (Whitaker’s) claimed fees were $1.7 million, so we estimated if we went up to the Supreme Court, and/or back down to trial court to try the case and go through anything, that their fees would be somewhere between $4 million and $5 million,” said Stadler said after the board’s vote. “So, it becomes a real economic decision in terms of balancing risks and the downside of being given an adverse decision.”
In essence, the cost of continuing would've been irresponsible for the school district. Legal costs alone, which are included in the settlement, are $650,000. The remaining sum goes to Whitaker. Kenosha Unified School District's insurers will pay out the $800,000, only $25,000 will be from taxpayer money and is deductible to the insurance company.
Upon the settlement, Ash Whitaker, who is now a freshman at the Univesity of Wisconsin-Madison, said, “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."
Furthermore, Whitaker commented, "Winning this case was so empowering and made me feel like I can actually do something to help other trans youths 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."
One KUSD board member, Gary Kunich, who voted against paying a settlement, commented that he doesn't fully believe the settlement, though a wise financial move, signifies a problem solved.
The settlement only applies to this one specific transgender student, not all transgender students everywhere. Whitaker is now allowed to use male-only facilities at Tremper High School when returning as an alumnus or community member, but what about other transgender students elsewhere?
Kunich said, “This opens us up to additional lawsuits and additional costs and I realize we have two issues. We have the civil rights argument on one side and the privacy rights on the other. I want the Supreme Court to settle this once and for all, not just for our district, but for other districts.