At last minute, groups urge East Aurora School Board to uphold transgender policy

AURORA, Ill. — Political and equal rights advocacy groups — some local, some national — are urging the East Aurora school board to uphold a policy that creates transgender student protections as the hours wind down before it reconvenes on the issue following intense criticism from around the state.

The 5-day-old policy would allow transgender and gender nonconforming students in the district to use restrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their consistently-presented gender identity and would ask teachers to refer to students by their chosen name — all without government identification changes.

The board came under fire shortly after the policy’s passage Monday by angered parents, people outside of the district and conservative groups such as the Carol Stream-based Illinois Family Institute, which is classified as an “anti-gay” and anti-LGBT hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. In a letter, the IFI calls acceptance of the policy “an outrageous and ignorant decision by the East Aurora High School Board of Education” and has gone as far to say that being transgender is “fiction” and a “mental and moral disorder.”

“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 letter said.

With the avalanche of criticism of the policy pouring into the district, the board called for a special meeting at 5:30 p.m. Friday to reconsider the policy in conjunction with the Illinois State Board of Education, according to Clayton Muhammad, spokesman for East Aurora School District 131, in a statement made to Chicago Phoenix Thursday.

But several organizations have come to the policy’s defense, advocating on behalf of the safety of transgender students, a population often isolated even with public school anti-bullying policies. The action comes as a last-minute effort to lobby the school board to leave the policy in place, due to fears by some activists that they will almost certainly vote to rescind it.

The Trevor Project, an LGBT support organization, issued a statement in support of the East Aurora policy.

“The Trevor Project is fully in support of maintaining the policy adopted unanimously by the East Aurora School Board on Monday,” stated Abbe Land, executive director and CEO of The Trevor Project. “Since 2010, more than 3,000 teens from Illinois have called the Trevor Lifeline in crisis, and among their top presenting problems were bullying and harassment at school. This policy will help protect the highly vulnerable transgender student population from discrimination, fear and hate that leads to bullying, increased anxiety, and elevated safety concerns on East Aurora’s campuses, and is a step that can help save lives.”

The Trevor Project also reiterated that IFI has flooded school board member email inboxes with complaints.

The Southern Poverty Law Center issued a letter to the board early Friday stating that the revoking the policy would signal anti-LGBT animus on behalf of the district, which would potentially expose it to legal liability. The U.S. Departments of Justice and Education have found that discrimination based on gender nonconformity is a form of sex discrimination prohibited under Title IX of the Education Code, according to SPLC.

“The School Board should not allow the IFI’s vitriol to impact its legal and moral duty to ensure that all students have a learning environment free from harassment and abuse,” Alesdair Ittelson, an SPLC attorney, wrote in the letter. “The spread of hate must end at the schoolhouse doors.”

Recently, SPLC settled a lawsuit on behalf of gender nonconforming students in the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota, who allegedly suffered bullying due to their gender expression and because the school did not have adequate protective policies in place to prevent such harassment. The district was required to pay $270,000 in damages to six students involved in the suit.

At a local level, The Civil Rights Agenda, a Chicago-based LGBT equality and policy advocacy group, has traveled to Aurora for the special board meeting and are calling individual board members for a chance to discuss the implications such a policy reversal would have on transgender and gender nonconforming students in the district. TCRA is also urging its constituents to do the same as the meeting nears.

“At this moment, emails from extremists are flooding the East Aurora school board in an attempt to reverse a policy intended to create safe schools for transgender and gender non-conforming youth,” read an email sent to TCRA supporters. “Your help is needed to show the East Aurora School Board that Illinois values respect and supports diversity, and that fear-mongering and misinformation will not derail what is best for the safety of youth in schools.”

Another Chicago-based LGBT rights group, Equality Illinois, is also asking the school board to stand up to pressure from conservative critics and reaffirm the policy.

“Let’s be clear where the pressure for this meeting is originating. The Illinois Family Institute, designated a ‘hate group’ for its Nazi and racist hate speech, is generating the hate and the heat,” said Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois. “The East Aurora school board took a responsible position, supported by numerous educational and psychological experts, and now it faces venomous lies from a hate group.”

All of the groups entering Aurora East policy fray would like to expose IFI for its anti-gay sentiment and call on other institutions throughout the state to resist its demands.

In addition, several parents and students from around the district will attend the Friday night meeting in hopes of voicing testimony in support of the policy and a rally has been planned at the Saint John United Church of Christ in Aurora at 4 p.m.