Possible Obligation for Wisconsin District after Reducing In-School Learning for Trans Student

Rhinelander School District Settles Unusual Agreement with Office for Civil Rights Following Student’s Reduced Schedule

A Wisconsin school district may be obliged to provide compensatory instruction to a transgender student after adjusting their class schedule to only attend in-person classes three days a week to address ongoing harassment issues. The resolution was recently reached by the federal Office for Civil Rights.

During the 2021-22 academic year, the School District of Rhinelander, located in the central part of the state, modified the student’s schedule to allow them to attend in-person classes with supportive teachers, while taking the rest of their courses online.

Despite multiple complaints, teachers and students refused to use the student’s preferred pronouns, leading to both physical and verbal harassment. The student faced whispers and giggles directed at them due to their name, according to the complaint.

The Office for Civil Rights expressed concern that the district’s response to the persistent harassment limited the student’s participation in school activities and did not ensure equal access to education with their peers.

To address the situation, the district must train all staff on compliance with Title IX by the end of October. Additionally, students will receive education on sex-based harassment, including gender identity, and a school climate survey will be conducted to better understand the extent of the problem.

This case is noteworthy for several reasons, as compensatory education is typically provided to students who were denied special education services. While last year, a California district agreed to reimburse a family for counseling or therapy services due to the failure to promptly address harassment of a transgender student, similar agreements to the one in Rhinelander are rare according to experts.

Furthermore, it is worth noting that students who are often subjected to informal removal, such as being placed in virtual or home-based instruction, frequently have disabilities that contribute to discipline issues. Although this wasn’t the case with the Rhinelander student, advocates believe that such situations are likely not isolated.

“Too often, these incidents go unreported and unaddressed,” said Aaron Ridings, Chief of Staff and Deputy Executive Director for Public Policy and Research at GLSEN, an LGBTQ student advocacy group. “This results in long-term harm in terms of educational outcomes and overall health.”

While Wisconsin is not among the states passing anti-LGBTQ and transgender legislation this year, multiple states have considered and approved such bills. Over 400 bills have been introduced, and recent analysis by The 74 indicates that LGBTQ students face harassment in both red and blue states.

GLSEN’s research reveals that transgender and nonbinary students are approximately twice as likely as other students to report missing or changing school because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable.

In the case of Rhinelander, an assistant principal officially changed the student’s schedule, aiming to distance “Student A” from specific students, as mentioned in the complaint. However, the family expressed that those victimizing the transgender student should be the ones removed from the classes.

The student has since left the district and relocated to another state. However, Eric Burke, superintendent of the 2,300-student system, stated that officials intend to discuss compensatory services with the student’s family. If the student decides to return, the district is obligated to provide counseling and designate a staff member whom the student can approach in case of any future harassment, as stated in the resolution.

In a separate statement, the district acknowledged that it chose to address the complaint amicably rather than contesting the validity of the allegations. The district also expressed a commitment to providing more training, which they have already embraced.

During the investigation, it was revealed that the district often classified incidents involving the student as “peer mistreatment” instead of recognizing them as sexual harassment. For instance, when a “male student ‘bumped’ Student A in the hallway and used a derogatory term … toward them.”

As part of the resolution, the district is required to establish an online record-keeping system to document any conduct that may constitute sex-based harassment.