AURORA, Ill. — In a special meeting Friday evening, members of the East Aurora School Board voted to repeal a policy they unanimously voted to pass just five days ago, which would have created protections for transgender and gender nonconforming students.
The decision to rescind the controversial policy was also unanimous, with a vote of 4-0, though three board members were absent and came on the night of National Spirit Day, when tens of millions of people across the country wear purple to speak out against the bullying of LGBT youth.
“We are sorry. We are very, very sorry. Unfortunately, this is one that slipped by us. Public education is public education and it has to make everybody happy,” said East Aurora School District 131 Board President Annette Johnson. “This is very tough for me tonight … There is no winner in this.”
The hours-long special meeting on the policy was called after board members were inundated with critical emails from people in the district, people opposing the measure from throughout the state and conservative anti-gay groups such as the Illinois Family Institute.
Hundreds of people packed the district’s School Service Center for the meeting and dozens overflowed outside where a speakers system was set up to broadcast the discussions inside, a majority of them wearing red in support of the policy. Over 20 people made public comments before the board prior to the vote, many of them in support of upholding the policy.
“What you did on Monday was very courageous,” said Anthony Martinez, executive director of The Civil Rights Agenda, a Chicago-based LGBT rights and policy advocacy group. “Please consider what happened today — You have been bullied into having this meeting tonight. I want you to consider the message you will be sending to these transgender students if you rescind this policy.”
Martinez also mentioned that the board’s decision to repeal would expose it to legal action and that TCRA would perhaps initiate or support such action — to which he received applause from people in the room.
Joanna Kenyon, a mother of four, was visibly emotional when she shared her speech with the board, and started by saying that she taught all of her children to be accepting of everyone.
“If you rescind, it will make you the same victims that bullied children are,” she said. “You’re going to take hope away from them. It won’t get better if their own school won’t protect them.”
But the testimony and floods of support to counter opposition of the policy, it seems, were not enough to save it when it came up for vote.
Tensions flared in the seconds after the board repealed the policy, some in the room booing and yelling “Shame!” and “Cowards!”
“I hope they have a very large legal defense fund,” said longtime LGBT rights activist and TCRA’s Policy Advisor, Rick Garcia. “They should be ashamed of themselves, but then again, bigots seldom ever feel ashamed.”
Garcia echoed Martinez’s earlier suggestion that legal action would be a very real avenue to reverse the decision.
“The first transgender student who is hurt or harmed in this district will be a millionaire,” he said.
Some in attendance, however, supported the decision to rescind the policy.
“I would like to commend you for the recision of this policy,” said Aurora Rev. Dan Haas in his testimony. “I do not believe that by rescinding this policy that you are singling and population out.”
In addition to recommending the board do away with the policy, he asked that they create a new policy that would not put any of the students’ “health in jeopardy.”
And although the board voted to kill the policy, Johnson repeatedly suggested that the district would be open to hearing community input in the form of a committee in the coming weeks to create an entirely new policy that would address the same issues. They would also consider two other proposed policies, 715.11 and 500.08, which offer additional provisions that protect transgender and gender nonconforming students and personnel, at the next board meeting.
“I want the community to come together and work on this as a committee together,” she said.
Christie Aird, the district’s superintendent of secondary education brought the policy to the board in July while it was updating several of its codes, some of which were 30 years-old. It was passed without any discussion because the board thought it was part of the updates vetted by district’s lawyers and in line with state education code.
“We assumed wrong that it was vetted out, that it was a normal policy that existed in the State of Illinois,” Johnson said. “I sincerely apologize — and so do all the board members — that we didn’t watch closely enough… There is no excuse for that.”
All of this, in addition to a cabinet of school officials vetting the policy, were erroneously omitted when the board approved it, she said.
Ultimately, it was a policy that should not have been passed.
Aird has since been put on administrative leave.
The 5-day-old policy, in many regards groundbreaking for the region, would have allowed transgender and gender nonconforming students in the district to use restrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their consistently-presented gender identity and would ask teachers to refer to students by their chosen name.
Sandra Conti, a mental health therapist, Aurora resident and the mother of a transgender 17-year-old Aurora East High School senior, said she was hopeful that the board would choose not to kill the protective policies.
“How would you feel if every day you didn’t know where to go to the bathroom or that every day people called you a different name?” Conti asked, explaining her son’s experiences in the district’s schools. “It’s hard. Bathrooms were a horror.”
Conti’s son, who she requested to be left unnamed in this article, received two threats last year and derogatory comments this year from other students, she said. Conti and her husband gradually accepted their son after he wrote a letter to them in January in which he came out with his gender identity.
She was surprised at how many transgender and gender nonconforming friends her son has in the district, but also knows of a lot of children who don’t feel safe enough to come out.
“Rescinding this policy says to these kids, ‘Oh, you don’t matter,’” Conti said. “It says that it is OK to bully. This is about all kids who are bullied. This also sends a message to the bullies and that scares me.”
After the vote, Conti was resolute on staying positive about the decision and respecting the board members’ willingness to hold such a meeting. This never would have happened 10 or 20 years ago, she added.
The Carol Stream-based Illinois Family Institute, which is classified as an “anti-gay” and anti-LGBT hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, fiercely opposed the policy shortly after its passage. In a letter, the IFI calls acceptance of the policy “an outrageous and ignorant decision by the East Aurora High School Board of Education” and has gone as far to say that being transgender is “fiction” and a “mental and moral disorder.”
“This is a biased, radical, and offensive school board decision that all Illinois taxpayers—especially Aurora community members with or without children in school—should vigorously and tenaciously oppose,” the IFI letter said.
Representatives from the IFI were not visible at the meeting. Less than a handful of residents made public statements against the policy and none of them identified themselves as members or supporters of IFI.
Reaction to the decision
Several organizations reacted to the news late Friday night with statements to the media.
The Illinois Safe Schools Alliance:
“Despite a massive amount of local support and letters from respected doctors, mental health clinicians and civil rights organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, the Board decided to send the message to their students and families that bullying from an outside hate group wins out.”
Illinois Gender Advocates Public Policy Director June LaTrobe:
“Sadly, this evening the East Aurora School Board struck down its new policy addressing the needs of the school’s transgender students, one that it had unanimously approved earlier this week.
This decision was made after an attack lead by a certified anti-LGBT Hate Group, which used lies and misinformation to pressure the school board.
…Illinois Gender Advocates will now join with TCRA, to now take the necessary steps toward overturning this decision.”
Earlier in the day, both local and national organizations made last minute efforts to lobby the board.
This is a developing story. Chicago Phoenix will continue to update.