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.