East Aurora school district dissolves transgender policy committee

Board President Lynette Johnson. Photo: Tony Merevick.

Board President Lynette Johnson. Photo: Tony Merevick.

AURORA — After over two months of contentious debate, controversy and uncertainty, the East Aurora School District 131 has called off the creation of a new policy that would add protections for transgender and gender nonconforming students.

Following comments from about 30 members of the local community — about 40 miles west of Chicago — who decried the creation of such a policy as “dangerous” for district students, the school board unanimously voted Monday to disband the Ad Hoc committee it ordered in late October, citing its failure to yield progress.

“We have gotten to hear from the parents of the community and I am glad for that,” said Board President Annette Johnson. “I think this committee has served the purpose of bringing the community together and I think it is time to disband the committee.”

Anita Lewis, a school board member who chaired the Ad Hoc committee said she was disappointed by its inability to get work done during its meetings due to people from within and outside the community demanding to be a part of the discussion.

“Unfortunately, this committee has turned into a show,” Lewis said. “We have policies already in place that are there to protect students. I don’t see us going forward. This Ad Hoc committee isn’t going to help anyone. I think we should get rid of it.”

The Ad Hoc committee’s last meeting, Nov. 30, was picketed by over 120 religious and conservative protesters who were against its continuation. Police were also called in by the Department of Justice due to safety concerns for some of the committee members.

Prior to that meeting, Lewis decided to open part of it to public comments, which took away from the time that could have been used to discuss the actual policy, said Anthony Martinez, executive director of The Civil Rights Agenda and Ad Hoc committee member.

“I think it was a failure of leadership by the school board,” Martinez said. “I think the folks handling this from the beginning were out of their depth. You only have to look and see that the Ad Hoc committee never once discussed the matter of policy. All we did was sit and listen to people voice their displeasure.”

Joanie Rae Wimmer, a transgender lawyer and Ad Hoc committee member, agrees that time was wasted, saying that 90 minutes of the last meeting were used for public comments and that the speakers were organized by local religious organizations and the Illinois Family Institute.

“They’re the ones who allowed it to turn into a circus,” she said.

“I’m very disappointed that the board appeared to cave in to the vocal demands of the Illinois Family Institute, a certified hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center instead of allowing the committee they appointed to take testimony from experts in order to implement the Illinois Human Rights Act and protect transgender children,” she said. “What we could have done is limit public participation so that we can actually do our work.”

Local religious organizations and the IFI mounted intense opposition to any form of protections for transgender students since the school board approved a groundbreaking and comprehensive policy Oct. 15. Because of the deluge of criticism from those groups, the board rescinded that policy just four days later.

The district created the Ad Hoc committee in hopes of raising community support for a new policy.

Now, in place of a new policy, Johnson said the district has updated its existing anti-bullying programs to meet state standards.

Another board member, Mary Anne Turza, said that although she disagrees with the creation of a new policy, the district should make appropriate accommodations for transgender students.

“We do need to make accommodations for transgender students — just like we do for students with disabilities,” Turza said. “If they are not given that opportunity, then they can appeal to us and we can make those accommodations.”

All of the board members voiced their desire to move past the issue and focus on educating its students.

Many of the speakers at the at-capacity meeting voiced concerns that the privacy and protection of their children in school bathrooms would be compromised if children of the opposite gender were allowed to use the same bathroom.

Such a policy, however, was never on the table in the district, leaving some proponents of the creation of a new policy scratching their heads.

Several of the speakers also opposed the district allowing people from outside of the community to sit on the committee, and that matters such as policies and issues involving students should only be decided by those within the district.

“I’m here to state that I strongly stand against the transgender policy,” said Patricia Ramirez, a mother of four children in the district. “I am Aurora. We are Aurora. And we want to be heard.”

Crystal Gray, who served on the committee, representing United States Transgender Advocacy, said she’d like to remind the community that several committee members from outside the district were invited to participate.

“I was asked to be here based on my expertise on the transgender community,” Gray said. “We will continue to have the door open when requested to come back, however, if any transgender youth or children are harmed, we will be back without invitation.”

Gray said she thinks the issue in East Aurora is far from over.

“They think they may have won the battle,” she said. “But there will be a war on this.”

Another mother in the district, Maria Alonzo, told the board she taught her children to respect others, but that her children and their safety should also be respected.

“I am against the transgender policy because it risks the well-being of my children,” Alonzo said. “We are not for the policies other people want to implement on our children.”

After the board vote, the packed room erupted in applause, many of the spectators waving signs and some of them approaching board members and thanking them.

As for what’s next for a transgender policy, Clayton Muhammad, the district’s communications director, said he could not speak for the board.