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Aurora school board repeals transgender protections (UPDATE)
by Jason Carson Wilson
2012-10-20

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East Aurora School District 131 repealed its policy intended to keep transgender students safe. On Oct. 15, District 131 school board members passed a policy, detailing how transgender students should be treated. They reversed that decision during a packed emergency meeting Oct. 19.

School attorney Bernie Weiler said it was an amendment to an anti-bullying policy that would have added specific procedures for "handling gender identity issues." Weiler said the policy was rescinded in order to get state guidance.

With board members Mary Anne Turza and Stella Gonzalez absent, Board President Annette Johnson and members Richard Leonard, Raymund Hall, Anita Lewis and Ignacio Cervantes voted unanimously to end the policy.

Johnson apologized for the board's actions, while defending its commitment to District 131 students.

"I sincerely apologize that we didn't watch closer," she said. "[But] public education has to address everyone's needs."

Johnson said she could related to student struggles.

"I was a tomboy," she said. "I know how it goes."

Susana Alfero, the mother of 7-year-old, Kayla, who identifies as a transgender, was among those at the meeting. Kayla wore a red baseball cap, red sweatshirt and jeans.

"She's perfectly fine with who she is and who she will become," Alfero said during a public comment period. "She's no less of a person because of the way she was born. Tomorrow, when you stop this policy, who's going to protect my child?"

Alfero also told audience and board members that Kayla began talking about boy names at age 5. It was then, she said, the family decided to support Kayla. Alfero said she instructs her daughter every day to "let none of this get to you."

After speaking and before the board's vote, Alfero fretted about what the policy's rescission would mean.

"I'm sad," she said. "Who's going to guide her? They're the ones there to guide her."

Vera Verbel, 58, of St. Charles, a trans woman, felt compelled to attend the meeting. She applauded the school board's initial move and stressed the policy's significance.

"A transgender person can say, 'This is who I am' … a secret that's certain to be a sickness," Verbel said before the meeting.

Verbel's friend—Emma Vorsicky, 57, also a trans woman—also came out for the meeting. Vorsicky believed the policy would have shielded transgender students from facing the same fate she did.

"I remember what it was like to go through high school and be afraid to be afraid to say anything about who I was," she said.

Vorsicky, an attorney and former District 131 substitute teacher, was amazed at the board's knee-jerk reaction to critics of the policy and stressed its need, just prior to the meeting.

"Some child somewhere in the system would feel safe," she said.

Anthony Martinez's public comments to the board highlighted what he felt was irony. Martinez, The Civil Rights Agenda executive director, noted the emergency meeting was being held on Spirit Day, a time to show solidarity and support for those being bullied.

"You have been bullied into having this meeting," Martinez said. "I want you to think about the message you are sending."

He also said that the board rescinding the policy leaves District 131 legally vulnerable. Martinez promised further action, including legal action, if the policy were overturned.

The bullies to which he referred, included the Illinois Family Institute, which some blame for setting off the controversy after the group condemned the policy on its website.

"This is a biased, radical and offensive school board decision that all Illinois taxpayers—especially Aurora community members with or without children in school—should vigorously and tenaciously oppose," the IFI wrote on its website Oct. 16. "Remember, all schools receive some state funds, so all Illinois taxpayers have a vested interest in this policy. In addition, gender/ sexuality anarchists are working to establish this kind of policy in every elementary, middle, and high school in the country."

In addition to The Civil Rights Agenda, other civil-rights organizations opposed the repeal. The Illinois Safe Schools Alliance was among them, which brought 200 supporters to the Oct. 19 meeting.

"We are so grateful for the groundswell of support here in Aurora—from families, from churches. It clearly demonstrates that the residents here support ensuring the safety of all students," said David Fischer, program manager at the Alliance, in a media statement.

According to the Alliance, strong opposition emerged after the IFI publicized the policy.

"We are beyond dismayed and shocked that concerns from outside the district would drive this type of reactionary decision," said Alliance Executive Director Shannon Sullivan, in a statement. "We maintain our commitment to supporting the families and students of District 131 in being heard over the outside concerns of hate groups. This work will continue."

District 131 board members plan to revisit the policy during its Monday, Nov. 5, regular board meeting at McKnight Service Center, 417 Fifth St., Aurora.

Caption, photo #1. L to R, Executive Assistant Lisa Morales, District 131 Superintendent Jerome Roberts and Board President Annette Johnson listen to an incensed audience during an emergency school board meeting Friday. Board members rescinded a policy aimed at protecting transgender students, which they'd just approved last Monday.Photo for Windy City Times by Jason Carson Wilson

Caption, photo #2. Concerned citizens packed the McKnight Service Center. They'd come out in force to a Friday emergency meeting, in order to protest Aurora East School District 131's planned reversal of a policy, which offered transgender students protection. Photo for Windy City Times by Jason Carson Wilson

East Aurora school district caves to pressure from radical group

From a GLAAD News Release

GLAAD Releases Facts and Resources for Media Covering East Aurora School Board's Decision to Rescind Protections for Transgender Students

Chicago-area media outlets are failing to tell readers and listeners the full story of the organization that pressured the East Aurora School District 131 to rescind a new anti-discrimination policy only days after the policy was approved.

On October 15, the district unanimously passed an inclusive school district policy that would protect students based on their gender identity and expression.

The vote prompted anti-transgender invective from the Illinois Family Institute, an extreme anti-LGBT organization that has been labeled a hate group that believes being gay is the same as incest. Under pressure, the district, located in the Chicago suburb of Aurora, met again on October 19 and took away the new anti-discrimination policy.

Unfortunately, because the media failed to paint a complete picture of what the Illinois Family Institute is, the school board took these protections away from transgender students and may return to a climate of bullying and harassment.

"Equality Illinois believes the need to expose the Illinois Family Institute and its national affiliate the American Family Association is gravely important," said Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois, the statewide LGBT advocacy group. "The American Family Association's and the Illinois Family Institute's comparison of LGBT people to Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan is a desperate attempt to make their point and further demean and marginalize our children" Cherkasov said.

On October 17th, the Chicago Sun-Times network only provided the Illinois Family Institute's own description of itself:

IFI tags itself as an "independent non-profit ministry dedicated to upholding and re-affirming marriage, family, life and liberty in Illinois."

Chicago's ABC 7 stated that the IFI "strongly opposed the district's new policy" but failed to provide any more information about the group, and CBS2 did at least call the group "conservative" but stopped there.

"Conservative" doesn't even begin to cover the anti-LGBT hate promoted by the Illinois Family Institute and its parent organization, the American Family Association. Both organizations have been designated as "hate groups" by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

IFI spokesperson Laurie Higgins has called being gay "evil," has compared it to incest, and has said that supporting LGBT Pride is "implicitly … embrac[ing] heresy."

AFA spokesman Bryan Fischer is even more extreme, having claimed: "Homosexuality gave us Adolf Hitler, and homosexuals in the military gave us the Brown Shirts, the Nazi war machine and six million dead Jews." Fischer also says that gay people are the single greatest modern threat to freedom of religion and conscience."

The media now has the responsibility to give this context to its audience, so that they have a complete understanding of why these important protections were taken away from already marginalized students.

Parents, educators and community members who were not aware of the Illinois Family Institute might have believed them to be a credible organization, with positions based on what experts agree is or isn't beneficial to children and families. This could not be any further from the case.

National figures:

56.9% of students reported hearing negative remarks about gender expression from teachers or other school staff.

43.9% of students felt unsafe in schools because of their gender expression.

Students who were more frequently harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender expression had lower grade point averages than students who were less often harassed (2.9 vs. 3.2).

Six in ten (59.5%) students in schools with comprehensive policies heard homophobic remarks (e.g., "faggot" or "dyke") often or frequently, compared to almost three quarters of students in schools with generic, non-enumerated policies (73.3%) or no policy whatsoever (73.8%).

*Source: Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) 2011 National School Climate Survey

East Aurora School District Sends Harmful Message to Students

Illinois Safe Schools News Release

Aurora, IL — In a special school board meeting held Friday evening, the East Aurora School District rescinded the policies they previously unanimously voted to pass supporting transgender and gender non-conforming youth in District 131. Despite a massive amount of local support and letters from respected doctors, mental health clinicians and civil rights organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, the Board decided to send the message to their students and families that bullying from an outside hate group wins out. To counter the outside hate group's message, the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance organized local families, churches and social service organizations in order to ensure that local voices could be heard over the vitriol and misinformation from the Illinois Family Institute. Almost 200 supporters organized by the Alliance met at St. John's United Church of Christ at 4p to make signs and attend the meeting. "We are so grateful for the groundswell of support here in Aurora—from families, from churches. It clearly demonstrates that the residents here support ensuring the safety of all students," said David Fischer, Program Manager at the Alliance and lead organizer to support local community members.

"I am completely stunned by the Board decision tonight, as I have been since I heard this meeting was called," exclaimed local parent Robin Schmidt, "the opposition is religious-based and from outside of our community. The Board of Education had made up their minds before the meeting and even though the outpouring of local support was heartwarming, it made no difference to the Board." Ms. Schmidt's sentiments were echoed by many at the meeting, who were dismayed that the school board would so readily bow to outside opposition. "These policies were put in place here in District 131 because we have transgender students here, some who spoke at the meeting. The students I see in therapy are there because of bullying and harassment and these policies were drafted and approved in order to care for their safety and health," said District 131 parent and psychotherapist Amanda Aller-Lowe.

These policies were passed at a regular school board meeting held earlier in the week and were the result of many months of work by district personnel in response to the needs of transgender and gender non-conforming students in their schools. After the Illinois Family Institute, a recognized hate group, publicized the school board's decision on their website, calls from outside the district concerned the school board members and a special Board meeting was called. "We are beyond dismayed and shocked that concerns from outside the district would drive this type of reactionary decision. We know personally how frightening these calls can be, and we understand that school board members were threatened with crucifixion and flogging. That said, it is dangerous to send the message that threats and harassment work," said Alliance Executive Director Shannon Sullivan, "We maintain our commitment to supporting the families and students of District 131 in being heard over the outside concerns of hate groups. This work will continue."

About Illinois Safe Schools Alliance (the Alliance)

The mission of the Alliance is to promote safety, support and healthy development for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth, in Illinois schools and communities, through advocacy, education, youth organizing and research. The Alliance provides professional development to over 2,600 school personnel annually, supports the network over 150 Gay-Straight Alliances across Illinois, and empowers youth to be agents of change in their own schools and communities.

For more information please visit www.illinoissafeschools.org


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