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East Aurora board repeals district transgender policy

SusanAlfaro Auroralong with her daughter Kayl7 address their concerns about East Aurorschool district rescinding their rights for transgender kids Friday

Susana Alfaro of Aurora along with her daughter Kayla 7, address their concerns about the East Aurora school district rescinding their rights to for transgender kids on Friday, October 19, 2012 in Aurora IL. | Terence Guider-Shaw~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 22, 2012 6:23AM

On National Spirit day, a day when millions of Americans are encouraged to wear purple to speak out against bullying and show their support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens, the East Aurora School board voted to repeal a recently passed policy aiming to protect the rights of LGBT youth.

At a board meeting Monday, board members unanimously approved a policy addressing the rights of transgender students. On Friday, in a special meeting, that policy was rescinded. Only four of the board’s seven members were on hand for the vote. Mary Anne Turza and Stella Gonzalez were out of the country, and board member Ray Hull left the meeting early to attend his child’s Senior Night activities.

Christie Aird, the district’s assistant superintendent of secondary education who formed the policy and brought it to the board, has been put on administrative leave. Hundreds of supporters of Aird, and the policy, turned up at the school service center wearing red and holding signs, urging board members to uphold their decision.

Standing room only

An hour before the meeting began, the seats at the service center had been filled. Aurora police stood by while supporters spilled out into the hallways, and eventually outside of the building where a speaker was placed to accommodate those who could not be let in.

Nearly two dozen people signed up to speak, most of them hailing from Aurora. Out of those residents, only two spoke in favor of the policy’s repeal. Others, like West Aurora mother Beth Keenan, talked passionately about what rescinding the policy would mean to the district’s most vulnerable students.

A lesbian mother of five children, Keenan said one of her children also identifies as a lesbian, while another is wavering with her own gender-identity. When she heard about the policy that had been passed Monday, Keenan said she was “so excited.”

“It showed every kid that they had value,” she said. “(The board’s decision to repeal the policy) is like a punch in the stomach.”

For the mother of an 8-year-old transgender child, the decision was beyond heart-breaking. The woman spoke through tears as her daughter stood at her side. She described how even at 2 years old, her child was already identifying as a boy.

“She is perfectly fine with who she is and who she will become, and I am proud of her,” she told the board. “Now you want to repeal a policy that would have protected my child.”

Policy shouldn’t
have passed

Board President Annette Johnson told the audience that when Aird brought the policy to the board in July, board members assumed it was simply being updated to comply with state guidelines.

Because of that, the board cast its approval with no discussion or review.

“People are going to say, ‘Didn’t you read your own policy?’ Well, no,” Johnson said. She added that she trusted that Aird and the district’s attorney were simply following protocol. Aird, “pulled the wool over our eyes,” and brought the policy forward without following the proper procedures, Johnson said. “We assumed all of the steps were being followed...

“I sincerely apologize — and so do all the board members here — that I didn’t watch closer. It’s been a very tough week for us all,” Johnson said. “I don’t know what to do to fix this.”

Aurora resident and East Aurora School District mother Kathy Davis took the podium Friday and applauded Aird for her progressive thinking.

“Dr. Aird has gone above and beyond by bringing up something that no one else would touch,” Davis said. “To know someone like her who will stand out and do whatever it takes to protect the kids makes me proud, happy and thankful.”

Public backlash

Since it was approved on Monday, East Aurora’s new policy has gone viral. Organizations throughout the state and the country have chimed in on their views — either for, or against the board’s decision.

On Tuesday, the Illinois Family Institute (IFI) published a letter addressing the district, and asking for the repeal of the policy. IFI tags itself as an “independent non-profit ministry dedicated to upholding and re-affirming marriage, family, life and liberty in Illinois.”

In the letter, IFI calls acceptance of the policy “an outrageous and ignorant decision.”

Organizations including the Illinois Safe School Alliance, The Trevor Project and Equality Illinois have taken the opposite stance.

“It would be extremely sad on today of all days to buckle under to the bullying of a ‘hate group’ and not provide needed protections to all of our students in safe school environments,” said Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois. “Let’s be clear where the pressure for this meeting is originating. The Illinois Family Institute ... is generating the hate and the heat.”

Cherkasov said the organization is urging the board to “stand fast against pressure” from the IFI.

Johnson said the board does plan to approve two updated blanket harassment policies that will include transgender students. She said she will also look to the state board of education to create more specific policy.

“Public education has to address the needs of everyone,” she said. “Unfortunately, there are two sides to every story.” Johnson said that not one transgender student has brought any issues to the board regarding treatment at the district’s schools. If problems do occur, she said they will be addressed.

The policy

The rescinded policy said that in most cases, transgendered students should have access to the locker room that corresponds to their gender-related identity, and be called by the name they identify with. It further stated that classes or teams that are segregated by gender should also be open to students according to the gender that the student self-identifies with.

Had Aurora resident C.J. Victoria been offered these privileges as a high school student, he would be in a very different place today. C.J., who identifies as a male, is a 2007 Waubonsie Valley High School graduate. He showed up Friday to voice his support East Aurora’s new policy.

“I wanted to see kids who are in the position I was in to have the opportunity to be themselves,” he said. “Probably the most important thing to ever happen to me was when I realized there was nothing to be afraid of ... I just want to be able to put my name down on paper and have people be OK with that.”

According to a recent survey conducted by the University of Illinois at Chicago, 87 percent of Aurora parents who participated said they believe schools should be safe for LGB students. Eighty-one percent believe schools should be safe for transgender students.

Parents throughout the state, 92 percent, want policies that help protect students from harassment or discrimination based on transgender identity or gender expression, the survey reported. Parents surveyed represented a vast array of political and religious views.

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