Suburban school board backs off transgender protections

East Aurora School Board president Annette Johnson says parents were uncomfortable with bathroom issues, district was tired of controversy

December 18, 2012

(WBEZ/Lewis Wallace)
Vera Verbel spoke out in favor of protections for transgender students.

The school board of East Aurora voted Monday to dissolve a committee it formed in October to advise the district on transgender issues.

The move comes just months after the district withdrew a policy that would have allowed students to use their preferred names and gender pronouns. It would have also allowed students to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with or be provided with the option of a private bathroom.

Although many turned up at early meetings to express their support for the rescinded policy, it has since sparked ongoing protest from parents at public meetings, including Monday’s school board meeting. Reportedly upwards of 100 members of the public showed up.

Most were there to continue their protest of any policy that would allow transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice.

“I would say what they were trying to tell us was, you know, a girl going into a boys’ bathroom or a boy going into a girls’ bathroom...the parents didn’t feel that the school could control that,” said school board president Annette Johnson.

But Vera Verbel, a transgender woman from a nearby suburb who attended the last committee meeting to speak out in favor of a policy, said she thinks parents’ fears are misinformed.

“There’s an implication that transgender people for some reason are dangerous, and will cause harm to those who aren’t transgender,” she said.

Verbel said she was booed by the audience at the meeting when she identified herself as a Christian.

“I said, I can’t believe you would be this way, you would freely accept God’s grace for yourself, but you won’t extend it for me? Shame on you,” Verbel said. “And that kind of quieted things down a bit.”

Johnson and others who support dissolving the committee point to anti-bullying and anti-discrimination policies the district already has in place.

The state of Illinois requires public school districts to have anti-bullying policies, and in 2010 gender identity was added as a protected class.

Since the October controversy over transgender protections, the district has updated those policies accordingly.

Johnson said she has heard about two transgender students, one middle and one elementary school student, whose parents have raised the need for support within their schools. But she said those conversations never made it to the school board, and she believes the individual schools will support those students’ needs.

“Whether they’re transgender or not, [students] need to be protected, they need to have safety. They don’t need to be bullied, and I get that,” said Pat McManus, senior pastor at Kingdom Impact Center in Aurora.

McManus sat on the 22-person committee along with other leaders from within and beyond Aurora, but he supported the district’s decision to dissolve it.

“I don’t think you need to change a whole policy for a school district just for one or two people,” McManus said.

He also said he did not recall any booing or heckling at committee meetings.

Statistically, it is very difficult to establish how many people are transgender - estimates range between one in 12,000 to one in 50.

But one thing is proven: transgender students are disproportionately likely to experience harassment at school. 

A recent national survey says 80 percent of transgender students reported feeling unsafe at school because of their gender identities, and nearly 40 percent of LGBT students reported feeling unsafe in locker rooms and bathrooms.

And one study says the suicide rate among transgender people is 26 times the rate among the general population.

Johnson said the East Aurora School District will enforce anti-bullying policies already in place, rather than passing a policy specific to transgender students.

“We just needed to finally put this to rest and let the staff get back to working on the test scores and things like that,” Johnson said.