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Illinois school committee: ‘Our transgender policy could change the country’

Illinois school committee: ‘Our transgender policy could change the country’

AURORA, Ill. — An Ad Hoc committee of the East Aurora School District 131 convened for the first time Thursday to discuss its plans to create a new policy for protecting transgender students after a previous district policy was rescinded late last month.

This time, the committee emphasized that it would get the policy right.

Anita Lewis, chair of the committee, said it would take its time to make sure it would produce the very best policy devisable, one that would protect not just transgender and gender nonconforming students, but all students in the district from bullying and harassment.

“We want to take enough time to make sure we get in the right policy to protect this group of students as well as all students,” Lewis said, explaining that the committee should establish a policy, and a mechanism for training district staff like teachers, administrators as well as establishing means of support of transgender students.

“We have to do a better job,” she said. “The better we do at this, the better it will be for our whole country.”

The district recently announced the formation of the committee as a result of a controversy sparked by the district board of education’s decision to approve a far-reaching transgender protection policy Oct. 14, which it quickly reversed Oct. 19 after a deluge of criticism from within and outside the west suburban area.

Residents suggested the community could come together to create a better, comprehensive policy instead of confronting incidents throughout the district on a case by case basis.

The 21-member committee’s composition included longtime district residents, teachers, administrators, religious leaders, a statewide anti-bullying expert, civil rights leaders and transgender community rights activists. Three of the district’s school board members, Marry Ann Turza, Stella Gonzalez and Lewis, as well as the district’s Spokesperson Clayton Muhammad and school district attorney, Bernie Weiler.

Rick Garcia, policy advisor at The Civil Rights Agenda, a Chicago-based LGBT advocacy group, sat in on the committee for the TCRA’s Executive Director Anthony Martinez, who was out of town.

Two experts on the committee offered statistical and anecdotal information to their peers to increase understanding of the challenges transgender and gender nonconforming youth and adults face today.

“Being transgender is not easy,” said Crystal Gray, a longtime transgender policy advocate. “It’s extremely important that we address the issues of transgender kids today. We cannot protect them all the time, but we can as much as possible so that they can turn into productive people in this world.”

Gray also shared bits of data regarding transgender violence and suicide. The average person has a 1 in 15,000 chance of being murdered, whereas a transgender person has a 1 in 13 chance of being murdered, she said. In addition, she said transgender people are also eight times more likely to commit suicide.

On a logistical level, Sara Schreiber, policy director at the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, said the committee will have to do more than just draft a new code for its schools.

“If we only passed policy an hoped that it would protect students, then we have not done our jobs,” Schreiber said. “We need to have something more — procedures and mechanisms in place.”

The logistics for implementing a powerful policy and carrying it out across school districts could be overwhelming, but Schreiber said the good thing is that the Alliance has already worked with other school districts to achieve similar results.

With those challenges in mind, Lewis made clear that a solution wouldn’t be reached at that meeting, or even the next on or one in December.

One thing was certain, though: A new policy would be created to align with state level code, Weiler said.

“It is not a debate as to whether or not this is the right policy,” he said. “That has already been determined for us. It’s about how we do it.”

“That ship is sailed,” he said.

The next committee meeting will be held Thursday, Nov. 29 at 6:30 p.m. in the same boardroom at 417 Fifth St. in Aurora.

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