Sixty percent of LGBTQ+ students report feeling unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation. That’s a statistic from a GLSEN 2017 National School Climate Survey, which sampled 23,000 students between the ages of 13 and 21 from around the country.

River Forest District 90 Superintendent Edward Condon knows well that students don’t always feel accepted or valued.

“There are so many ways in which students can feel excluded,” said Condon. “The work to prevent it will never be done, but we are always moving closer.”

This work began in earnest in 2014 with the formation of District 90’s Inclusiveness Advisory Board, but prior to that, some LGBTQ students in D90 felt left out or undervalued.

A group of D90 graduates from 2015 and 2016 reached out to Wednesday Journal with feelings that seem representative of those found in the GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network) study.

Ana Shack, who graduated in 2015 from D90, felt at that time there was little to no support or education for LGBTQ students.

“I am a bisexual alumnus who loved my time at Lincoln but would have benefited from more support,” she said in an email. “I struggled most with feeling like my identity did not really exist or was not valid.”

Shack and her parents reached out to administrators at the time but felt their concerns about more support for LBGTQ students weren’t taken seriously. 

After leaving D90 and moving on to Oak Park and River Forest High School, Shack joined an LGBTQ group at school.

“It was an eye-opening moment where I realized that it is OK for me to be bi and it is possible for others to accept me for who I love.” She wished there had been a similar club within D90 when she was there so she could have had the support then that she needed.

Another student, who wished to remain anonymous, had difficulty with sexuality while at Roosevelt Middle School.

“I began questioning my sexuality in seventh grade,” said the student who graduated from Roosevelt Middle School in 2015. “I struggled to find ways to voice my feelings because I didn’t see anyone else talking about sexuality in my school. This made me feel very insecure and confused about my identity, which negatively impacted my mental health. Providing students with more support in understanding their gender and sexuality will overall lead to a happier and safer school community.”

A 2016 D90 graduate brought up the difficulty of being a closeted trans boy at graduation time. 

“There was a lot of tension surrounding what I was going to wear to my eighth-grade graduation,” he said. “The rules were that the girls had to wear dresses and the boys had to wear suits.” He said, though, that “the teachers and parents took it upon themselves” to make sure he received one of the flowers given to male students as opposed to the bouquets given to female students, and he was allowed to wear a suit and stand in the middle of the photographs, “between the boys’ and girls’ sections.”

“It wasn’t perfect,” he added, “but it made me feel a lot more comfortable. I am still so grateful for those adults helping me have a graduation experience that felt authentic to me, even though they may not have known exactly what I was going through at the time.”

Over the past few years, though, things in D90 have been changing, with administrators taking a long hard look at how to be more inclusive in general, including issues surrounding gender. 

In 2014, the year before Shack graduated, the district created the Inclusiveness Advisory Board.

“We realized that, as a district, we weren’t as inclusive as we would like,” said Condon. This was true in several areas, he said, including race, gender, language and families new to the River Forest community.

The board came up with specific goals, including gender expansiveness. In 2018, the Gender Inclusion Committee was formed. Centered around the legal, social and emotional ramifications of gender differences, the committee provided gender education for faculty in partnership with Lurie Children’s Hospital. They also retained attorney Nickie Bazer, who has since been appointed to Governor Pritzker’s Affirming and Inclusive School Task Force, to guide policy development.

Other key actions and events of the committee included faculty and staff education and the revising of D90 Policy 7:10, which deals with equal educational opportunities. The policy was amended “to include language that reflects the inclusion of transgender and gender-expansive students,” according to an April 16, 2019 news release on the River Forest Public Schools website. 

Administrative procedures were also developed to support this revised policy, said Condon.

River Forest public schools have a Gender Support Plan, to be filled out together by students, caregivers and staff. It’s a comprehensive plan that considers things like what pronouns a student wants to use, who the student’s “go-to adult” will be, how the student’s privacy will be protected, what bathrooms the student will use, and who the student wants to know about his or her gender.

This fall, faculty and staff are being provided with gender inclusion training, which will incorporate key concepts and terms related to gender and ways to discuss gender diversity with students, parents and the community.

The committee’s recommendations to support all students, as laid out in an Aug. 26, 2019 D90 Inclusion Implementation Update from the Gender Inclusion Committee, are comprehensive and include: “Respecting name and gender pronouns (even when not in the presence of the student). Students should feel comfortable sharing their pronouns in class; avoiding unnecessary classifying by gender (boy/girl lines, lunch buckets, sitting in order, etc.); ensuring that all students are allowed to participate in activities/events in accordance with their gender identity.”

And unlike when Shack attended D90 schools, there is now an LGBTQ club at Roosevelt Middle School. Called Rainbow Tribe, it is run by school social workers Jessica Atkinson and Mandy Ross. “Be a part of a club who works towards a more accepting environment for all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity,” says the most recent flyer. “Be free to love.”

To better understand individual experiences and the current school climate, D90 collects information from students, parents and staff every two years in an Inclusiveness Survey. So far, the district has run the survey in 2015, 2017 and 2019, though the latest results haven’t been posted online yet. 

“Some of the responses underscore the urgency of making sure that all students are feeling included,” said Condon. “We are continuing to move closer to a community where everyone feels valued. It’s a continual effort.”

CONTACT: maria@forestparkreview.com

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