East Aurora School District announces new committee in the wake of transgender controversy

October 30, 2012

(Slideshow: Parents and community members talk about what Aurora is like for transgender students.)

The East Aurora School District has announced that a committee will hold its first meeting Nov. 8 to discuss potential new anti-bullying and discrimination policies.

The formation of the committee comes in the wake of a controversy in which the school board passed and then rescinded a policy on transgender students in just five days’ time, and one key administrator was placed on leave for her part in developing the initial policy.

The policy would have allowed transgender students to use their preferred names and pronouns at school, and to have access to bathrooms and locker rooms aligned with the gender they identify with. It also stipulated that transgender students had a right to privacy, and said they could be out at school without having their parents notified.

District spokesman Clayton Muhammad said Monday that the committee will be selected by board members and administrators, but meetings will be open to the public. He said the new committee will develop an “all-inclusive” anti-discrimination policy for students, but will not necessarily address issues specific to transgender students.

During the week of Oct. 15-19, the East Aurora school board received hundreds of calls and emails in protest of the policy – many from outside of the district. One conservative group called it “a radical policy on gender confusion” in a web post asking its members to send emails.

But when over twenty people from the area spoke at a packed public board meeting Oct. 19, almost all spoke out in favor of keeping the protections in place. At least one suggested forming a committee to address the issue.

Advocates in favor of the transgender protection believe the district rescinded the policy because of pressure from outsiders.

The district said they rescinded it because they did not fully understand its implications and were not prepared to implement it.

And some parents said the new protections seemed like they should be uncontroversial, because East Aurora was already a supportive place for LGBTQ students.

What happened in East Aurora?

"They never said their kids were being bullied”

In the few days between passing and rescinding the policy, East Aurora School Board President Annette Johnson estimates the board received over a thousand communications, mostly emails, about the protections for transgender students. The Illinois Family Institute, a conservative Christian ministry designated as a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, was behind at least a few hundred of these communications.

But Johnson said it wasn’t those calls that led to the school board’s quick turnabout on the issue.

“Here’s the big thing that I want to point out to everybody,” Johnson said, “I don’t have an issue with us rewriting the policy.” She says that’s the task the new committee will take on. But when it was passed, she said, the district was unprepared: “It’s just that that particular policy on that particular day...we did not have a prayer of implementing that program. You can’t put a policy in place before people get trained.”

Johnson also said the board was misled by an administrator to believe they were just updating policies to meet state requirements.

That administrator, Dr. Christie Aird, was placed on administrative leave nearly two weeks ago. Johnson said the leave was a result of Aird’s part in passing the policy. District representatives had no comment and Dr. Aird has not returned calls.

Aird worked with other administrators and the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, an LGBT youth advocacy group, to develop the policy over several months. According Alliance leaders, the process was initiated after a parent with a young transgender child in the district sought the help of school administrators.

“I was approached by an outside organization and by Dr. Aird, saying hey, we’ve got a gender nonconforming student, and we want to make sure that East Aurora is prepared to support transgender students,” said David Fischer, the Alliance’s program manager.

The Alliance provided Aird with model policies and advised her on the one she brought to a school board committee chaired by Annette Johnson in July. Johnson’s committee unanimously approved the new policy in October after district lawyers gave it the go-ahead.

The same committee looked at proposed changes to the district’s anti-bullying policy in July. East Aurora has yet to update it to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected groups, an update required by the state of Illinois as of 2010. When Aird brought the transgender policy to the board, she also brought this proposed change. Johnson said the board still plans to vote on a new bullying policy.

But Johnson also said she thinks the district is already doing a good job dealing with bullying and said no parents had come forward to the contrary. Even the parents expressing support for the transgender protections, she said, “never said their kids were being bullied.”

Some of the confusion on all sides may stem from the fact that the transgender policy passed in East Aurora was not exactly an anti-bullying policy, nor was it an update required by the state of Illinois. Most of it focused on the responsibilities of teachers and administrators to accommodate and protect students who are out as transgender at school by allowing them to participate in school activities under their preferred name and gender.

Are transgender students safe in Aurora?

“The district in general, and the community, are very, very protective of the students,” said Dr. Amanda Lowe, a psychologist whose daughter attends East Aurora High. “So this was sort of a shock...it was exactly the opposite of the way they usually respond to these types of issues.”

East Aurora or District 131 is a small school district contained within the larger city of Aurora, a municipality of nearly 200,000 people. Aurora’s kids attend schools in six different districts. Of about 14,000 students in District 131, 84 percent are Latino, 8 percent are black, and 5 percent are white. Many students are poor and many have parents who are undocumented; Lowe says the district’s protectiveness extends to issues like deportation raids and dropout rates. East Aurora High has an active Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), mental health services and an anti-bullying program in partnership with an outside organization.

Lowe has lived in Aurora for fifteen years. She said she moved to the community because she liked its diversity, its schools, and its progressive politics. She is bisexual, and she works with LGBTQ-identified clients as well as East Aurora students in her professional practice. When she and her daughter – whom she describes as “also not straight” – found out about the policy, she said they “had a little celebration.” 

“The next morning,” Lowe said, “it was gone. There was an article saying there had been some kind of backlash.” After being contacted by the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, Lowe attended the public meeting a few days later and spoke in favor of keeping the policy.

Asked whether she might become a member of the new committee, she said she doubts she’ll get a call.

“I don’t think they [the school board] like me very much,” Lowe said.

Sandra Conti is a mental health therapist who has lived in Aurora for seventeen years. Her son, who is transgender, goes to school in Aurora in District 204, which is east of District 131 and extends into Naperville.

She said her son has encountered some difficulty with students and teachers at school, but she believes he’s had an easier time because of her advocacy.

“The frustrating part for me are adults who do nothing,” she said in an interview at the home of a friend. “In my school they do attend to it, but I’ll be honest, I think they attend to it because I’ve been so active in the school district.”

While Conti’s son has chosen to stay at his school despite some difficulty, she says bathrooms, locker rooms, and pronouns were all issues at first. Before he came out and was given access to a private locker room, she said, “he was to the point where I worried about suicide.”

“He spent two and a half years in hell," she said. "Sad to say, but we need the policies for adults to step up to the plate.”

Nationwide, transgender people report a high rate of harassment and discrimination for their gender identities. The suicide rate among transgender people is 41%, 26 times the rate among the general population. A national survey published by Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN) in 2011 said 80% of transgender students reported feeling unsafe at school because of their gender identities, and nearly 40% of LGBT students reported feeling unsafe in locker rooms and bathrooms.

In West Aurora, just across the river from the east side, the main high school has had a GSA group for eight years; it changed its name to Spectrum this year. The group’s advisor, Joe Maston, said he has never had any problem with the administration and believes the school is generally protective of LGBTQ students. But if a policy like the one in East Aurora were passed at West, he said, “it would bring the controversy to the forefront, I’m sure. I’m sure there are many people who would be upset on both sides.”

Maston also said he knows students don’t always bring their concerns to teachers, even the ones with a reputation for being supportive.

“If someone came to me tomorrow and said, ‘what are you talking about, all these terrible things happen all the time’...I guess I don’t know if I would be surprised or not.”

See our slideshow (above) for more from parents and community members about what Aurora is like for LGBT students.