'This is a civil rights issue'

D200 board votes on gender-related policy change, new procedures

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter

By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

On May 24, after District 200 school board members voted unanimously to revise an already existing policy to increase supports for transgender and gender-nonconforming students, most of the roughly 50 people gathered inside of the former second-floor library space at Oak Park and River Forest High School applauded, cheered and waved signs.  

"This is a life and death issue," said board member Matt Baron more than an hour after the board heard public testimony from people who have pressed for the policy change, along with accompanying procedures designed to enforce the policy. 

Transgender refers to people "whose gender identity is different from the way certain genders are stereotypically expected to behave" while gender-nonconforming refers to people "who do not follow other people's ideas or stereotypes about how they should look or act based on their sex assigned at birth," according to definitions included in the new procedures. 

Among supporters of the policy change were transgender and gender-nonconforming OPRF students and graduates — many of whom said that going to the bathroom or walking down a hallway involves a brutally high-stakes cost-benefit analysis — decisions almost always accompanied by fear.  

Classrooms are the scenes of daily, routine humiliations, where teachers often blatantly disregard transgender students' preferred pronouns. Bullying is a sort of rite of passage. And for some, suicide marks the journey's end. 

That end almost happened to 1993 OPRF graduate Nick Heap, who said that when he entered high school, his name was "Anna" and he had "long, blonde hair." He was "the only out, gay student all four years in front of me and all four years behind me." During his junior year of high school, Heap was "very, very close to taking myself out of this world." 

"I am so intensely grateful that you have the courage, the foresight, the compassion and the intelligence to take on this policy work," Heap told board members Thursday night. "It will save lives." 

The board unanimously voted to change Policy 7:10, entitled Equal Educational Opportunities. The revision entails adding two sentences to the passage on sex equity. Before, the policy stated that, "No student shall, based on sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity be denied equal access to programs, activities, services, or benefits or be limited in the exercise of any right, privilege, advantage, or denied equal access to educational and extracurricular programs and activities." 

From now on, the policy will also state that "students shall be treated and supported in a manner consistent with their gender identity. This shall include but not be limited to; students having access to gendered facilities, including restrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their gender identity." 

Along with the policy change, the district also introduced a series of new procedures that "address issues such as names and pronouns, restroom and locker room usage, overnight school trips, and more," D200 Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams explained in a statement sent out to staff, students and parents on Thursday night.  

For instance, the procedures state that all "students have the right to be addressed by a name and pronoun that correspond to their gender identity." At the start of each semester, teachers will ask students "via a written or electronic survey" how they prefer to be addressed in class. School staff or students who intentionally or persistently refuse to "respect a student's gender identity" will be in violation of board policy and subject to discipline. 

"We also have created a process for students and/or parents and guardians to request a Gender Support Team and/or Gender Support Plan," Pruitt-Adams added. "Neither a team nor a plan is required in order for a student to receive supports at school." 

The district has long had policies "protecting all students from bullying, harassment, and intimidation," the superintendent stressed, and had dealt with the needs of transgender and gender-nonconforming students on a case-by-case basis. 

But last fall many transgender and gender non-conforming students, along with their allies, "requested that we expand and formalize our supports. We had extensive public comment at two board meetings, and a community-wide petition was signed by [900-plus] community members." 

The procedures, the superintendent said, were developed by a gender equity committee that the district created ahead of the policy revision. 

The committee included OPRF faculty and staff members, parents, representatives from the nonprofit Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, Lurie Children's Hospital's Gender and Sex Development Program and the University of Illinois at Chicago's School of Public Health. Students, Pruitt-Adams said, also provided their input during the process. 

While an overwhelming majority of people in attendance at Thursday's board meeting were in support of the policy revision and new procedures, a handful of community members pushed back against the board's decision, arguing that the new procedures might, at the least, be ineffective and, at most, potentially harm cisgender students (or those whose gender identity corresponds with their sex at birth). 

"Disagreement doesn't necessarily mean homophobic," said Mark Daniels, an OPRF parent who said that he didn't believe that all voices had been adequately heard in the process of changing the policy and creating the new procedures.

"I disagree with this policy because I don't think it will solve what you think it will solve," he said. "There needs to be better dialogue on this."

School officials, however, said that the process was steeped in research and collaboration. They also argued that the new policy and procedures would benefit all students.

"It is critical that we, the OPRF High School community, realize that these equity policies are not to benefit just one group," said Sheila Harden, the president of OPRF's Faculty Senate. "Every student will benefit." 

Board member Jennifer Cassell said that the new procedures and policy change were "thoroughly vetted by legal counsel" and that modifications were made based on counsel's advice. Cassell added that the "harms identified by [some in the district] are all speculative." 

Cassell, an attorney, referenced a landmark court decision, Whitaker v. Kenosha Unified School District, in which a federal appeals court allowed a transgender student in Kenosha, Wis., to use the boys' restrooms during his senior year of high school "without fear of discipline or invasive surveillance by school officials," according to a summary of the case by the Transgender Law Center. 

"The School District has failed to provide any evidence of how the preliminary injunction will harm it, or any of its students or parents.  . . . , whereas the harms to Ash are well-documented and supported by the record," according to the court's written opinion. 

Cassell called the new procedures and policy change one of the board's "greatest accomplishments" since she was elected in 2015. 

"This is a civil rights issue and I'm proud our district is on the right side," she said, before perhaps forecasting the next front in the district's battle for gender equity. Now that the new policy and procedure is in place, Cassell said, the board needs "to really rethink our graduation attire." 

The room erupted in applause. 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com    

Reader Comments

7 Comments - Add Your Comment

Note: This page requires you to login with Facebook to comment.

Comment Policy

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: June 17th, 2018 5:41 PM

Terry Miller. A high school student in Connecticut, recently stated he was a girl. He went on to take top honors in the Connecticut State Track meet by beating out all the other girls and the transgender second place finisher. Here in Oak Park, if the Board can not accommodate all, maybe all high schools athletics as well as PE might be cut, saving the taxpayers a ton in the way of salary and possibly a new pool. Ah, the merriment of mayhem coming to a school near you soon.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: June 16th, 2018 2:14 PM

Terry Miller. Born male, as of six months ago declared female,nothjing more, was allowed to run in the Conn. State Girls Championship and won hands down. Displaced all those female athletes . Oh the merriment of misery and mayhem. The school board must accommodate all or none If not all, then made all high school sports will disbanded. Title IX gone. If the Oak Park tax payer gets lucky, maybe all sports will be done away with and there will be no need for the pool, Or PE. or PE teaches.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: May 31st, 2018 9:04 AM

Two guys noticed that Hooters was accepting employment applications for their wait staff, females only. They applied for the wait staff position, were denied, filed suit and walked away with cash. Money for nothing. Oh, to be a difficult, defiant male HS student. Declare yourself female, express a desire to be a female, want to attend girls PE, change in their locker room, don't get immediate access, declare mental damage, file suit with the many waiting attorneys, and wait for your purple Corvette, courtesy of the taxpayer of Oak Park. Book and movie rights to be discussed at a later date.

Alex Garcia  

Posted: May 30th, 2018 9:22 PM

Pam: As the article states, the district already had a non-discrimination policy that provided basic protections. Now, the focus is apparently on pronouns usage and bathroom access based on gender identity as well as other things that sound much more like the district trying to negate biological and societal norms and reality. A questionnaire to students on preferred pronoun usage and possible penalties for faculty who call a biological male "he" and a biological female "she"? That's a matter of "life and death"? It's absolute insanity.

Pam Niesluchowski  

Posted: May 30th, 2018 7:39 PM

When you learn that 41% of trans people try to kill themselves over their lifetime, vs. 4.6% of the general population, as well as their being at a greater risk for assault and murder, it makes sense to establish policies and structures to help trans kids feel more supported and accepted. Further, research clearly shows that this is not an "issue du jour;" there is evidence that there have been trans folks in North America since the early 1600s (in several Native American tribes), and we have over four centuries of documentation of people dressing differently from their gender. While I don't have space to fully address why this is an important step for us as a community to make, there are many organizations that provide information and education on this issue (e.g., https://transequality.org, https://www.hrc.org) if anyone still wonders why this was an important and historic vote.

Alex Garcia  

Posted: May 30th, 2018 3:50 PM

Oak Park. Always tying itself up in knots over fashionable social justice issues du jour. And of course each one is an immediate "life or death" issue tantamount to the great civil rights struggles of the 1960s. What's next on the list after the "gender non-conforming" fad subsides, folks?

Kathy Lewis  

Posted: May 29th, 2018 4:28 PM

Does this mean that the graduation dress code will finally be gender neutral?

Facebook Connect

Answer Book 2018

To view the full print edition of the Wednesday Journal 2018 Answer Book, please click here.

Quick Links

Sign-up to get the latest news updates for Oak Park and River Forest.

MultimediaContact us
Submit Letter To The Editor
Place a Classified Ad

Latest Comments