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OPRF adds protections for transgender students

June 20th, 2018 10:55 AM

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

On May 24, Oak Park and River Forest High School's school board approved an updated equity policy which puts in place procedures to ensure that transgender students, gender nonconforming students and students questioning their gender have a safe, affirming and healthy school environment.

Prior to the adoption of the new procedures, all students were protected from bullying, harassment and intimidation under a policy that all students had an equal right to educational and extracurricular activities. The needs of transgender and gender nonconforming students were considered on a case-by-case basis.

As student and community calls for a more formalized support system increased and a community-wide petition was presented to the board, Superintendent Joylynn Pruitt-Adams formed a gender equity committee to revise the district policy and develop procedures for the district moving forward.  The committee was made up of faculty, staff, parents, representatives of the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, Lurie Children's Hospital's Gender and Sex Development Program and the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois Chicago. A student focus group also provided input.

Jennifer Cassell, a school board member, said it was clear it was time to formalize procedures.  "This had been on the radar of faculty and staff, and we also had a groundswell of activity from the community. We wanted a policy on the books. No matter happens with school board turnover, this would stay in place."

She stresses that student input was key. "As board members, we always want to hear from the students because they are the most important group that we want to serve."

Noting that many students attended board meetings to speak in favor of the procedures, she says, "It takes a lot of courage for students to talk about their own personal experiences, some of which was very painful."

Jackie Moore, school board president, agrees that student input was a meaningful part of the process. "I say to the students, 'this is your school.' The story of their experiences informs what we do with particular policies."

Cassell says one of the most important steps will be implementing district-wide training in conjunction with the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance. The new policy requires annual training, and the on-site professional development is for faculty as well as all staff.  Cassell points out, "Counselors and administrative assistants are on the front lines."

Moore stresses that it will be an ongoing process. "It's not one and done. It's a continuing process. Every year, we get new students and new faculty. We can't rest on the fact that we think we know something. It never hurts to go back and refresh and think about things through new eyes."