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Local

DeKalb County schools await state policies for transgender students

School districts 424,427,428 have general policies affording students freedom from discrimination based on sex, gender identity, sexual orientation

DeKALB – As schools around Illinois revise policies to accommodate transgender students, officials at some local districts said they will wait until state agencies adopt policies of their own.

Although Sycamore, DeKalb and Genoa school district boards’ policies include sections affording students freedom from discrimination based on sex, gender identity and sexual orientation, none of the districts specifically outline the rights of transgender students.

DeKalb schools, however, are expected to follow a set of procedures to accommodate transgender students and employees, Superintendent Doug Moeller said.

“When it came up years ago it was kind of like, ‘What’s the big deal?’ ” Moeller said. “We consider ourselves to be an open and affirming school district. People who don’t go along with the culture, don’t agree with that culture, generally choose to work somewhere else.”

In July, the U.S.Department of Justice said in a court filing that transgender students must be allowed to use the restroom that corresponds with their gender identity and failure to do so amounts to sex discrimination under Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments of 1972.

The opinion was in response to a federal lawsuit filed in Virginia by a 16-year-old transgender student who wanted to use the boys’ restroom.

Closer to home, Palatine Township School District 211 recently approved a deal allowing a transgender student, who was born male and identifies as female, to use a separate changing area in a girls locker room.

There is no comprehensive number for students in the United States who identify as transgender. Estimates suggest less than 1 percent of the population consider themselves transgender, but these are based only on those who have sought mental health services, according to the Sexual Information and Education Council of the United States.

A spike in advocacy for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights might be encouraging transgender students to speak up about what schools can do to accommodate them, said Owen Daniel McCarter, policy and advocacy director for the Illinois Safe School Alliance. As school district’s scramble to update their policies, DeKalb County’s districts aren’t alone in looking to the state for guidance.

“They don’t have that guidance from the state board of education,” McCarter said. “It would be really helpful to have that state support.”

In the meantime, Sycamore and Genoa schools plan to hear their transgender students’ needs on a case-by-case basis. Students at DeKalb schools are addressed by their preferred pronoun and allowed to use private, gender-neutral faculty bathrooms and locker rooms, Moeller said.

“It’s not a big deal for us. We don’t tell students who are biologically one gender who identify as another, ‘No, you have to use a boys’ locker room because you are biologically a boy,’ or the other way around,” Moeller said. “We just allow them to use private washrooms for that.”

None of the students who use the faculty bathrooms and locker rooms have complained of feeling stigmatized; rather, they prefer to use the gender-neutral facilities, Moeller said.

While DeKalb schools know of students in the district who identify as transgender, Sycamore and
Genoa superintendents said they have yet to be asked to make an accommodation for a transgender
student.

Transgender students seeking accommodations in the Genoa district would be referred to a team of counselors and administrators to help reach a decision, Genoa Superintendent Joe Burgess said.

Similarly, Sycamore schools plan to address the transgender student population on a case-by-case basis, using the board’s equal educational opportunity policy as a reference point, Sycamore Superintendent Kathy Countryman said.

“At this point in time, those are the policies we have been using for many, many years and will continue to use,” Countryman said.

Educating the community is one of the best ways for schools without transgender-specific policies to help their students feel safe and visible, said Toni Weaver, president of the PFLAG Council of Northern Illinois, an advocacy group.

“I would say at least begin the process of becoming educated about the topic,” she said. “Because these students are there and the schools need to be prepared for when that first student comes out to them as transgender.”

In DeKalb, conversations surrounding LGBT issues are already being introduced at the middle school level with the formation of Gay-Straight Alliances and Pride organizations at Huntley and Clinton Rosette Middle Schools, said Ali Henry, who serves as the adviser for the Gay-Straight Alliance groups.

“We have also created safe space symbols that are optional for staff to display in their classroom-door windows. Our clubs have fund raised for materials to print out, laminate and provide staff with these symbols to show anti-bully support within their classroom,” Henry said. “These safe space signs have been an amazing conversation piece and teaching tool for those in our buildings. We have had many students ask what it means, and we have had students recognize what it means and feel comforted by the support.”

Middle school is an important age for students to feel comfortable being openly transgender, since some transgender adolescents chose to begin a regimen of hormone blockers to defer the onset of puberty, Weaver said.

The more it’s talked about, the less fear will surround being transgender, McCarter said.

“There is a certain sort of underlying element of a fear of transgender people,” he said. “What’s happening in District 211 in Palatine is a really poignant example of that. There’s this assumption that students are not going to be safe in a bathroom with a transgender person.”

About 35 percent of Illinois students report that sexual orientation is the most common reason students are bullied or harassed, and 34 percent of Illinois students report gender identity as the main reason, research from the National Mental Health Association shows.

But even in schools such as DeKalb’s, where administration and faculty are taking proactive steps to accommodate their LGBT students, bullying is still a problem, Henry said.

“A common issue for students is hearing anti-gay language within their school day,” she said. “I have provided staff at the beginning of the year with information on what to say if they hear someone say, ‘That’s so gay.’ One of the most important things you can do for a student that is part of the LGBTQ community is to address anti-bully language.”

• The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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