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Oak Park/River Forest passes rules protecting trans students
by Matt Simonette
2018-06-04

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Community members and school board officials lauded the passage of a rule codifying protections and instructions for transgender students at Oak Park River Forest ( OPRF ) High School in Oak Park.

The policy that the OPRF Board of Education passed May 24 is added to the school's existing prohibition against discrimination on the basis of gender. Newly added wording states, "Students shall be treated and supported in a manner consistent with their gender identity. This shall include but not be limited to; students having access to gendered facilities, including restrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their gender identity."

The policy will be reflected in new administrative procedures at the school. The passage was cause for celebration for Jane Ditelberg, who has a transgender son attending OPRF.

"The high school had a lot of ad hoc things in place," explained Ditelberg. "They're very sympathetic. I don't want anyone to think that the school here was not helpful, because they were. It's just that a kid, with what they were experiencing, was navigating it on their own. The students and their parents had to go ask for what they needed. There wasn't anything laid out, and if you didn't know there was an option, you didn't ask for it."

Ditelberg's son, for example, preferred to change for gym class in a unisex bathroom, and did not have a convenient place to store his street clothes while he was in class; he did not realize until months later he had the other options.

"He spent a whole semester last year not knowing what to do," Ditelberg recalled. "This year he had a different gym teacher, who said, 'Why don't we just get get you a gym locker right next to the bathroom and you can put your stuff in there?' It was not a big accommodation. The school was making it for other people, but if you didn't know who to ask, you didn't know what you could get."

An ad hoc committee spent several months reviewing the discrimination policy and formulating how to tackle issues transgender students might face at OPRF. Among those on the committee was Board of Education Secretary Jennifer Cassell, who said that equity and inclusion were "pillars of the strategic plan" for the school.

She added, "During the process when we were revamping our strategic plan, there was a lot of discussion among the staff about having more specific and concrete policies and procedures on the books for our transgender and gender non-conforming students. We also heard a lot of feedback from the community, that it was something the community desired."

Having rules "written down in our policies and procedures was really important," Cassell said.

Board of Education President Jackie Moore noted, "The desire of our board was to ensure that [the policies] were realized and that it was clear from the policy how the procedures could go forward in a way that there was no ambiguity about what the goals are. Boards change, but policies can be put in place that allow procedures to be effective. Our goal was to put something in place that would not be viewed as ambiguous."

While there was some initial concern about the new policy from some quarters, discussion and debate remained civil.

"Our community is progressive in terms of openness to people of different ilks, whether that's socio-economic [status], gender identity, race, all those things," said Moore. "We had a very effective community organizing approach from our community that was really insistent on clarifying our procedures and wanting that to be something we honed in on. … We started to hear the hesitation that some community members had, but it was never contentious, and never anything that would rise to the occasion of fear or hatred, just questioning and wanting to understand [whether we are] thinking of all our students."

Many of the concerns were headed off, Moore added, because, "The committee had done their homework and were thoughtful in bringing in families and students, and ,at the end of the day, were able to respond to those concerns with, 'We're looking out for the best interests of all of our students.'"

Officials from Illinois Safe Schools Alliance and Lurie Children's Hospital also took part on the committee reviewing the policy.

Community member Kelly Benkert, who was among local residents advocating for the policy change, said, "We were really trying to think about partnership with the school, and we still have work to do. We've had this success in District 200, but there are the two elementary districts in Oak Park and River Forest, who we'll be working with next to try to get their policies and procedures in alignment with those that passed in D200."


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