An Insider’s View of What Happened at the East Aurora School Board’s Meeting Rescinding Support for Transgender Students

Yesterday evening, the East Aurora Board of Education (in Illinois) voted to rescind a policy that would have benefitted transgender and gender-non-conforming students in the district.

The East Aurora Board of Education

Even though the policy had been adopted unanimously earlier this week, it was unanimously struck down due to pressure from Christian hate groups like the Illinois Family Institute.

Rick Einhorn attended yesterday’s school board meeting and offers this guest post of what he saw and heard:

I first heard about the situation with the East Aurora School Board last night when a friend directed me to Hemant’s blog post about it. Both the Human Rights Commission and Planned Parenthood sent out emails urging people to contact the school board or show up if it was possible. I live within walking distance of the the building where the school board meets and have this crazy view that protecting kids and helping create a safe environment to learn is very important for the education of all students.

It seemed like a good opportunity to go show my support.

What follows is my take on the meeting. I’ve written things down as accurately as I remember them, but I apologize in advance for any unintentional misquotes.

Before heading over to the school board meeting, we were told that the sizable police presence around the meeting was due to death threats that had been directed at some board members. It was not specifically stated who the threats were from. At 4:45p they began letting people into the chamber where the meetings are held. Judging by the red and purple shirts, and the general tone of conversation, the crowd seemed heavily in favor of keeping the new policy in place. There had been rumors of people opposing the policy being bussed in but that never materialized.

The audience at the East Aurora School Board meeting (via WGN-TV)

Of the 20 speakers at the meeting, 15 of them spoke in favor of keeping the new policy in place.

I thought every single speaker did a great job, regardless of the position they took (really!) — Below are some of the highlights from the speakers themselves. Most will be paraphrased, but I will quote directly where I can.

I missed the first speaker’s affiliation, but he spoke on behalf of a group that advocated for LGBT students. He applauded the board for the actions they took on Monday, calling them courageous for taking very important steps toward equality. He stated that 90% of transgendered youth felt unsafe in school while 63% have experienced harassment. “I call on you to consider what is happening today. You have been bullied into having this meeting by those who are against LGBT individuals. And I want you to think about the message you send to the students in your district. If you rescind this policy, you will have bowed [down] to the bullies.”

He reiterated that this policy is in place to ensure that transgender and gender-non-conforming students feel safe and are able to enjoy the school environment. He then stated that, should the policy be rescinded, his group would take further action to have it reinstated, including legal action if necessary. His point of view was that the board was opening themselves up to a liability by implementing a policy and then rescinding it.

The next speaker was an Aurora resident and social worker. She brought up a policy that states the Board takes full responsibility for itself, its actions, and the work it does. This is important in light of a quote from the board regarding the policy: “It’s something we (the board members) would not have questioned in light of the attorney and the administrators bringing it forward.” She said she had read the policy and had questions, even as simple as wondering if this policy was comparable to what other districts have put in place. She pointed out that everyone in the room was here because the board voted on the policy without even asking the most basic of questions. Based on her experience with the administrators who brought the policy forward, she felt that if questions had been asked, they would have listened, discussed, and given careful consideration to a more moderate policy that still met the needs of transgendered and all other students. “That you did not read the policy or think about it, or research or ask questions like, ‘is this comparable to what other districts are doing?’… Board of Education I ask you to set an example by accepting responsibility, apologizing, and promising to do better next time instead of only blaming people like [Assistant Superintendents] Christie Aird and Joan Glotzbach.”

Some of the speakers tended toward a more emotional appeal. A mother of four was upset to the point of tears that they’d consider rescinding the policy because of bullies taking hope and support away from transgender kids. She said, “Kids just want to know they’re good and not evil.”

Another mother brought her daughter who tended to identify as a boy from a young age. “She is no less of a person because of the way that she was born. This is an issue for districts everywhere, and this issue is not going away. If you decide to repeal this, who will be there to protect my child? Because she is still going to be here.

Also speaking were students who were directly affected by the policy.

A member of the Gay-Straight Alliance at East Aurora High school spoke on behalf of herself and others who would be impacted by the deletion of the policy. “We don’t want to cause problems, but we want to feel accepted. We want to be a part of something, to be ourselves, and to be able to feel comfortable. All my life I’ve been bullied, pushed [around], spoken over, and I think today is my day to speak out. To say something for myself and for other homosexuals out there. Right here is a petition from my school that everyone has signed… well, most people…” In her hand was a petition filled with multiple pages of signatures in support of the policy.

Two transgendered women also spoke. The first discussed some of the realities faced by transgendered people, referring to a former workplace of hers that had adopted a policy allowing her to use women’s room. “No one was inconvenienced, hurt, or embarrassed.” She felt it would have been unsafe to require her to use the men’s room. “Rest assured that those on the outside who are agitating this situation are on the wrong side of history. The way we look back on the struggle for LGBT equality will be similar to the way we look at the struggle for African American equality today.”

The second discussed some of the difficulties transgendered youth often faced. There are many cases where kids have been kicked out of their homes because of who they are. They often face the possibility of homelessness, depression, and a risk of suicide eight times greater than those without gender identity issues.

Two residents spoke up in support of rescinding the policy… but, to their credit, both seemed generally supportive of LGBT students. They were mostly unhappy with the way the policy was rushed through. One, a teacher, said: “I protect all kinds of students and I want the best policy in place for all students. I do not think this policy is the best for all students. Reform it and make it safer and better for all students.” The other commended the board for the policies that they had already put into place and did not feel that rescinding the policy was an indication that the board was not accepting of any certain population. He simply felt it was necessary to put more work into a new policy.

Some other key quotes from speakers:

“Our children need our help. They speak out to us in silence. It is our responsibility to notice that and act on it to protect our children…”

“Whether it makes a statement in the state or nationally, it’s needed in our district. We need to keep it in in place for our kids.”

“The school boards that first enacted policies to protect women and minorities are described as leaders, innovators, progressive, and forward thinking. A board enacting-then-rescinding such a policy due to pressure from groups outside the community brings a different set of adjectives to mind: weak, afraid, cowardly, flip-flopper.”

“Doing the right thing is not always easy, but at least, at the end of the day, doing the right thing is still doing the right thing.”

Once everyone had their say, East Aurora School Board 131 President Annette Johnson spoke on the situation, trying to explain how we got to this point. I think what she said is important, so I will just quote her entire 20-minute statement as closely as I possibly can. Again, I apologize if there are any misquotes.

At this time, I would like to explain to the audience how this came about. Everyone has the right to understand… the philosophy behind public education. I would like to read a statement for the board, and make some comments. First of all, the East Aurora School District has many fine programs for our many fine students. I really do feel that the East Aurora School Board and the district has a lot of different, diverse clubs and we encourage all students to be diverse. We’ve definitely done that. I will tell you, I believe, and so do my fellow board members, that we have more diverse programs than any school district around. We’re always constantly looking for different clubs, different ideas from the students, and different ideas from the parents. We’re always doing that.

So it disappoints me and my fellow board members that we’re in the middle of this discussion this evening. A couple points: Last year the board spent $50,000 to put a bullying program in place. That program was rolled out last year in our middle schools, and this year it’s getting rolled out in our elementary schools. It addresses many, many forms of bullying, including sensitivity training for students, and also training on what students are perceived as different by their classmates, [and] how the classmates should treat the students right. Again, the board has been very sensitive to bullying. Again, we put our money where our mouth was, the program was $50,000 — that was just in supplies — that’s not the hours and time that was spent training our staff. So I think that shows our commitment to working and continuing to work with bullying.

Yes, every school district in the nation has transgendered students, just like the East Aurora School District. And I can assure you not at any one time has any parent or any student come forward to say that they were not being treated right. At least those comments have never ever gotten to the board of education. That is the case.

Now, there’s the other side of the story. As far as the board is concerned, we always try to get parents to come forward, we always try to get students to come forward. There is certainly a chain of command in place, where they can go to the Principal, then they go to the Assistant Superintendent of the programs, they can go to the Superintendent, they can go to the Board. Again, the last couple of days, we’ve put some of our building principals… our building principals have assured us that when a transgendered child comes forward and says they need to be treated fairly, or they’ve got issues or whatever, those issues are being addressed at our schools right now. So, that is the case.

Again, not necessarily, and I want to repeat that: Never has a complaint come to this board, that there was a problem for a transgendered student. We would take that very seriously. And believe me, we would work very hard to fix that. That is the current situation.

The board also believes in a philosophy of following the guidelines of the Illinois state school board. Public education is an issue that unfortunately, there are going to be both sides of an issue. I can guarantee you tonight, if the news media would have printed that we weren’t looking at repealing it, then the other side would have been here. I think one of the speakers said, “You’re not going to make everyone happy.” That’s true. That’s why we have the state board of education. That’s why we have the Illinois association of school boards. To guide us on those types of issues. So again, the board has always looked to them for guidance.

So how did we end up here where we ended up? Now, I’m not making excuses, not pointing fingers. I just want everybody to understand, in the audience, where we ended up. It’s very important and everybody needs to know. On July 16th, we had three policies brought forward to our personnel committee, personnel on our finance committee got condensed. So if anybody wants to go out and visit on the district website, they can look under… they will find that. It is true, our assistant superintendent of elementary education brought those policies forward. At that time, she told us the board was… that she was working with legal counsel to make sure we were in legal compliance with all of our codes. A lot of our district’s codes have been old and out of date. This board has had to fix a lot of things. For the residents who probably don’t get out to school board meetings, there’ve probably been 30 years of different things we’ve had to to fix. And we’ve addressed every one of those issues as they’ve come forth. Our board policies are old, that’s the fact. Currently today, we are working with the Illinois association of school boards to come in and fix all of those policies.

So when she came to us and said she was working with legal counsel, we didn’t really question that one way or the other because, oftentimes, what happens is the state of Illinois changes things — they change, say, a high school graduation requirement. They’ll go and do that. The board is not educators. One of our board members is but the rest of us are not. We have to rely on advice of our administrators when it comes to the school code. And we continue to keep updating the code as the state requires. And that’s what we do. That’s what we were told, that we were updating the program. It also was not necessarily unusual for the board to think that we were doing this, because we’d been… in the middle of this bullying training, and bullying programs, and looking at our bullying policies… that, again, that would not be out of the realm, that we were working on that, and that our administrators were working on that. And at the time, the training was going to go into the elementary schools, and I know she was working quite hard to do that. So, anyway, that’s where we ended up with that.

Now, what had happened, that a lot of people aren’t aware of, at the time, I’d referenced three policies. The policy that’s in question this evening, there is a policy 715.11 that’s on the agenda from the 16th of July. This policy is a policy that is… and I’m not going to sit here and read the whole policy tonight, because it’s very long and very lengthy. But I just want to point out a couple of things in that policy. There’s a… this policy is about harassment, intimidation, and bullying of students. We added the words “gender-related identity or expression” to that policy. That is actually red-lined in that policy. Red-lining means that’s something that we were gonna change. So again, we were looking out for gender-related identity issues and expression. And that is added to that policy. There are a lot of other things that are added to that policy, but I can guarantee you it addresses all of the normal social norms of, you know, student’s race, color, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, religious belief, age, physical and mental handicap, disabilities, all of those things. So, that’s in the policy. I suggest everyone go out and read it.

There was another policy that was brought forth on July 16th. This was 500.08. This policy dealt with the general personnel, equal employment, and minority recruitment. And this policy needed to be updated because we were not in compliance with the Human Rights Act. But, again, what did we add to that policy? Well, we added… we red-lined… and I don’t want to bore you with all those details tonight. But, what did we add to the policy? Well, we added sexual orientation, transgender, gender-related identity and expression. Transgender. That was added to that policy. So, again, two policies, two great policies. Two policies that are traditional policies for other school districts to have and I could go on to look at a lot of other school districts, and they recognize those policies.

So, back to how we ended up where we ended up. Well, August went by, September went by, our assistant superintendent of human resources, who ordinarily takes care of the policies, Joan Glotzbach. For the people out here that are our employees, I think everybody knows Joan Glotzbach to be a very, very detail-oriented person, questions a lot of things… she was not involved in this policy. Only our assistant superintendent of elementary was. So, unfortunately, probably some of the good questions that were asked, and Joan was a principal for 12 years, she understands school code. She understands what the state board is doing. She certainly has been on the state board website… Joan would have asked those great questions for us. Again, not making excuses.

Ok, so again, not making excuses. We usually follow a format here in District 131, when any new policies are reviewed, when the policies are changed, we have a cabinet that consists of of all of our directors and our superintendents. Not at any one time was this policy discussed. The only thing that was discussed was that we were updating the policy. So, again, a lot of those that are superintendents and the directors… and, again, if you don’t want to believe me, ask them, because they did not have that discussed with them. I encourage the staff to seek them out and ask them. Because I can guarantee you, again, that would have been another check, that we could have gone in and we would have known about it. It always takes place any other time. Then there was training for our building principals on policy, and there would be input and discussion from our building principals, and the assistant principals and things like that. Again, not necessarily something that happened. Not an excuse.

Now let’s talk about our legal counsel. The board employs a lawyer. She’s right here this evening. A couple lawyers actually. And they are supposed to keep us updated with policy and the way things evolve, and they know that the board’s policy has always been to follow the state board of education. So, we assumed… probably assumed wrong, that was vetted out. That it was normal policy in the state of Illinois.

I will just announce real quickly, that Mr. [Raymond] Hull unfortunately needs to leave because his daughter is having senior night tonight, and that’s a very special activity for him, so he is unable to stay.

However, let’s get back to our lawyers. So, anyhow, as far as the lawyer was concerned, again, not an excuse, but our lawyers suggests that that was ok. But the lawyer, I think, was more or less under the impression 715.11 and 500.08 was also going to be implemented, which for whatever reason, that did not happen. Now, this is the board’s responsibility.

I sincerely apologize, and so do all the board members that we didn’t watch closer. I am very, very sorry. This has been a very tough week for all of us. And I know it’s been a tough week for all of the board members. I know two of our board members are out of town on vacation, out of the country. I’ve been texting and keeping in contact, and they are also expressing that they are very, very sorry. Unfortunately, this one slipped by us. There is no excuse for that. Public education is public education, and it has to make everybody happy and has to address the needs of everybody. And unfortunately, there’s always going to be two sides to the story. But this board is here to protect these kids. If there is anything that ever occurs with these kids, we want to know. Talk to us. Come tell us.

This is very tough for me tonight. This is very tough for me tonight. I guess, maybe I was thinking of how it’d affect me personally. I was that tomboy in school and the boys picked on me. That happened. I know how it goes. I really do. I will tell you. I am sorry, from the bottom of my heart that this ever happened. This, again, there is no win in this. You’ve got one side, you’ve got the other side. You’ve got a board that’s been trying to work on 30 years of issues. And you’ve got a board that’s worked on getting art programs back in. The real news story was supposed to be our Magnet Academy. The board has worked very hard on that Magnet Academy. Every child in that Magnet Academy, 500 kids will have a computer. And they’ll be able to take that computer home to their parents. And that will be able to change the lives of their parents and themselves. Very unique program. That should have been the story of the East Aurora School District. And from that we were going to use that to jump start having a computer for every kid in the district. That’s what we were really working on.

I am sorry. I don’t know what to do to fix this. But I can tell you, we need to be… we need to recognize diversity. We need to recognize policy 715 and policy 500. And I will tell you these are going to be on our board agenda. With our next board meeting, and the board is going to vote on them, and they are going to get these policies in place. And it does recognize gender-related identity, and it does recognize transgenders working in our district. I don’t know. It’s a tough deal. I thought the one speaker did have a great idea, that we come together as community, that we set up a committee, work on this, come up with ideas. Being that we kind of jumped out there, I think probably we should focus on talking to the state. I will be more than happy to do that. I can tell you… we need to go after the state. The state needs to recognize transgenders, not just one district. The state school board needs to address the issue.
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So, as far as I’m concerned, that’s where we’re at, and again I’m sorry for all the problems that this has caused. I’m sorry that everyone had to come out on a rainy, cold night. But, you know what? This does make the community stronger. To all the people in this room… I want to hear from you now. I want to hear that you’ve come forward, that you’ve set up that committee, and we all put our money where our mouth is. Anyway, without further ado, call the roll.

The motion to approve deletion of school board policy 715.13 — the one at the center of this controversy — was then voted on, and the policy in question was unanimously approved for deletion. All four school board members present at the meeting voted against it. Board members Stella Gonzalez and Mary Anne Turza were not in the country and thus didn’t vote. Raymond Hull, as discussed, left the meeting early.

I think it is clear that, for various reasons, the board implemented this policy far too quickly without taking the time to understand what they were even voting on. A unanimous vote suggests a board that is very supportive of a policy and this was not the case here. It is equally clear from Johnson’s statement, and the outcome of the vote, that the outcome tonight was never in question.

I am not familiar with the contents of the other two anti-bullying policies that were discussed, and how far they go toward making transgender and gender-non-conforming students feel safe, comfortable, and welcome, but it seems that the board is very concerned with bullying and how students and staff, including transgender and gender-non-conforming students, are treated. Why these were not actually put into place yet is not immediately apparent to me. I would reserve some judgment until these policies are voted on and put into place, since I do believe they are generally trying to do the right things.

However, I am very disappointed that something like this could be allowed to happen in the first place.

I am furious to see a board member, Mr. Hull, state that he “does not support the LGBT,” and then have the audacity to walk out five minutes before the vote was to take place. Board members should be supportive of all students, regardless of their personal beliefs. I am also frustrated at their unwillingness to take a stand. It appeared that the board had taken a very courageous stance on Monday, one that should be applauded. Maybe their courage was an accident, but once the action is done, claim responsibility for it and make it your own. While it may be a general policy to defer to the state board’s guidelines, there is no real reason you cannot take a stand on an issue like this that is clearly so important to so many.

Giving people hope by implementing a policy, and then taking it away for any reason, simply sends the wrong message. You’re telling those affected that they were not important enough to have your full support and not worth taking a risk for. And whether it’s true or not, you’re sending a message that you will cave in to bullies. As one mother said: “They’ll see that there is no hope, that it won’t get better if their school won’t even protect them.”

I do think this is a setback for everyone involved, and that a disturbing message has been sent. It was, however, wonderful to see the community come out in support of transgender and gender-non-conforming students. Even though the vote didn’t reflect it, I felt that the board has made some efforts already and was willing to go further on this issue. I am willing to give the board as whole some benefit of the doubt depending on the actions they’ll take going forward. These actions will need to be very clear, supportive, and will need to be comparable in scope to the policy that was unfortunately rescinded tonight.

Anything short of that would be considered a failure of leadership in my book.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.