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East Aurora, Ill., school board flip-flops on transgender rights policy

Board rescinds policy it unanimously passed just five days ago
By Tony Merevick| Chicago Phoenix
Friday, October 19, 2012
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AURORA — In a special meeting Friday evening, the East Aurora School Board voted to repeal a policy that would create protections for gender nonconforming students that they quickly and unanimously passed just five days ago.

The decision to rescind the controversial policy was also unanimous, with a vote of 4-0, though three board members were absent.

“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.”

Board president Annette Johnson. Photo by Tony Merevick, Chicago Phoenix.

Hundreds of people packed the district’s School Service Center for the meeting and dozens overflowed outside where a speaker 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.”

Anthony Martinez, speaking before the board.Photo by Tony Merevick, Chicago Phoenix.

Martinez also mentioned that the board will expose itself to legal action and that TCRA would perhaps initiate or support such action — to which he received applause from people in the room.

Tensions flared as the board voted to repeal the policy, some in attendance booing and yelling “Shame!” and “Cowards!” as they left the room.

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 be 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 rework it or 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.

The special meeting on the policy was called on Wednesday after board members was inundated with critical emails from people in the district, people opposing the measure from throughout the state and conservative anti-gay groups.

The 5-day-old policy 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.

After the policy’s passage Monday was met by fierce opposition from conservative groups such as 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. 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.

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