In turnabout, East Aurora school board tosses out transgender protections

At packed school board meeting, policy is unanimously withdrawn less than a week after it was unanimously passed.

October 22, 2012

(Illinois Safe Schools Alliance/Sarah Schriber)
People packed into an East Aurora school board meeting Friday to weigh in on the controversial transgender policy.

The East Aurora School Board voted Friday to rescind a policy on transgender students passed just five days before.

The policy aimed to protect transgender and gender-nonconforming students’ right to privacy, and would have asked teachers to respect students’ pronoun and name choices. It would also have mandated that the school find a way to include transgender students in sports and physical education without forcing them to disclose their identities or use facilities that don’t fit their gender identities.

The policy would have asked school administrators to deal with these issues on a case-by-case basis. It was passed unanimously by the small suburban school board on Monday, Oct. 15.

By Wednesday the Illinois Family Institute (IFI), a conservative Christian ministry, had put out a call for protest. According to Laurie Higgins, the IFI’s Cultural Analyst, her post on the topic generated hundreds of emails to the small school district demanding they get rid of the protections for transgender students.

In just a few days’ time, the school board of East Aurora called a meeting at which they voted unanimously to withdraw the policy. Dozens of parents and community members spoke at the meeting. According to news reports, most spoke out in favor of keeping the protections for transgender students.

Clayton Muhammad, the spokesperson for the district, said that East Aurora is seeking to establish “a policy that’s aligned with the state board of education.”

“We’ll look to establish a community-wide committee who will sit down as a community to look at anti-bullying as a whole,” he said. “What recommendations come out of that is what we’ll move forward with.” He did not provide any details on who would be included in the committee, or on whether or not the committee can be expected to develop a new policy for transgender students.

The Illinois General Assembly updated its anti-bullying policy in 2010 to include gender identity protections. The state policy requires school districts to pass and make public their own anti-bullying policies. East Aurora has a bullying policy in place, but has not yet updated the policy to include gender identity among its specific protections.

Shannon Sullivan of the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance said Monday that her organization had worked with parents in East Aurora and with representatives of the district, namely Assistant Superintendent Christine Aird, for months before the policy on transgender students came before the school board. And she said the policy was reviewed by the district's legal counsel before the board first saw it in July.

She believes opposition to the policy was drummed up primarily by outsiders, and points out that the Southern Poverty Law Center formally classifies the IFI as a “hate group.”

“This [policy] did originate from a parent and child who were seeking better protections in the district,” she said. The board’s response, Sullivan added, was “tremendously reactionary.”

But board president Annette Johnson on Monday refuted accusations that the district caved to pressure from outside groups. 

"It’s not a question of are we backing down or being intimidated," she said. "We are not. It’s just...we have to try to make everybody happy." She said she received probably over 1,000 communications about the issue last week, and acknowledged that a majority – but not all – complaints came from non-residents.

She also said she did not know until last week that Assistant Superintendent Aird had worked with the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance to come up with the proposed policy. She and other board members believed the board was merely updating its policies to reflect state requirements on districts' anti-bullying efforts. East Aurora has had an anti-bullying program in place for over a year.

Higgins, of the IFI, hailed the board's reversal in a follow-up blog post on the group's website:

"We have no way of knowing all the factors that influenced this decision, but we do know that silence accomplishes nothing."