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October 7 was the first day of LGBTQ+ Equity Week at School District 65, and it was the first time the District held an LGBTQ+ Equity Week. That same night about 30 people showed up at a Policy Committee meeting of the District 65 School Board to voice concerns that parents were pulling their student out of the classes that were part of the curricular program for the week. Some pulled their children out of school for the whole week.

The week-long efforts to celebrate and affirm LGBTQ+ identities were supported through a partnership of District administrators and the District Educators Council (DEC, the teachers union).

In a letter dated Sept. 24 to the District 65 community, Phil Ehrhardt and Heidi Wennstrom, Interim Superintendents, and Meg Krulee, President of DEC, explained the curriculum that was designed to be taught in 30-minute segments each day during the week. The letter explained: 

“Students and educators will engage in a week-long curriculum that celebrates and affirms LGBTQ+ identities with the goal of fostering a deeper sense of allyship within our schools and the creation of a welcoming, inclusive environment for every child and adult. We are deeply appreciative of District 65 educators and members of the district’s Gender and Sexuality Educators Alliance (GSEA) for the many hours they spent this summer developing robust, thoughtful, and age-appropriate curriculum for use in D65. 

 “Throughout the week, students in pre-k through eighth grade will broaden their understanding of identity of self and others, allyship, family structures, vocabulary, gender expression, stereotypes, colors on the intersectional pride flag, and the historical contributions of LGBTQ+ people. All content has been developed to ensure that it is both developmentally and age-appropriate for all students.”

The curriculum prepared for each grade level was made available on the District’s website.

One teacher who helped develop the curriculum told members of the School Board at the Oct. 7 Finance Committee meeting, “We were promised there would be no opting out of this equity week. … Now to be told and hear that you can opt out and that parents can ask for that to happen, it’s horrifying in the sense that ‘Where does that stop?’”

They said that some students were leaving class and going to the principal’s office to work on puzzles; that one principal provided a schedule of the times the curriculum would be taught, so parents could pick up their child during that window; that some schools provided a “safe space” out of the classroom for students to go if their parents opted them out; some parents removed their child from school for the entire week.

“That shows me that this administration can’t stand by their word,” said the teacher.

Stacy Beardsley, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, said she had just spent 30 minutes on the phone explaining to a parent why there was no opt out.

Dr. Ehrhardt said “To the best of my knowledge … there has been no … mandate to say that now people can opt out.”

Dr. Beardsley said, though, “In discussions, we agreed that we would let families know what time the instruction was occurring if they were going to pick their child up – in trying to balance time in instruction – if they were not going to have their child participate. Designating ahead an opt-out space was not part of the conversation.”

The teacher said, “Can people opt-out of Black Lives Matter or the science curriculum that doesn’t meet the religious belief of a family?”

Dr. Beardsley said, “What we did with this conversation is we have stood by the curriculum, you did a tremendous job in developing it, it is a strong curriculum, there’s nothing in there that overlaps with sexual education that would require any form of opt out that State law requires.

“What I did hear Friday when people were talking about religious objections, it does become challenging, so we’ve been trying to help people understand that this is not a religious curriculum, this is not a curriculum that is advocating any form of sexuality, it is simply a curriculum to promote better understanding of a particular group of people and working to create safe spaces for all students so that they can be accepted and be truly who they are.”

“Using the word ‘safe spaces’ implies that being in the space where it is being taught is not safe,” said Ms. Krulee, suggesting they use different terminology. She added, “I would like to see if the Board is really standing behind this and would like to see the Board make a statement behind the no opt-out.”

She urged the Board to issue a statement that night.

Board President Suni Kartha said, “Talking about the time of the classes and providing alternate spaces – that sounds to me like an opt-out.”

Dr. Beardsley said she stood by a no opt-out policy. She said, “If the family says that they are refusing to have their child be part of the learning, we are not providing that safe space in the building and providing any form of alternate education. I do think that for some families, we have a situation where kids are going to be out for a week or families are trying to remove their kids for a window of time.

“I stand by the fact that all kids should be part of the learning.”

Ms. Kartha said, “There is no obligation to provide alternative space for students.” She added, “This really is a wonderful, thoughtful, age-appropriate curriculum.”

Board member Elisabeth “Biz” Lindsay-Ryan said, “The curriculum is so good. … All of us feel we can stand behind the curriculum.”

Board member Candance Chow said, “I think we should put out a statement of support, because this is a change effort, and part of that is showing our support. This is a cultural shift and an important shift to make.”

Board Vice President Anya Tanyavutti said, “Not telling people the time of the curriculum is an option.”

Dr. Ehrhardt responded, “If a parent asks the time it will be taught, the teacher will be honest and tell them.” Dr. Beardsley pointed out that if a parent asks the time math will be taught, they will be told.

The same teacher raised another issue. She said the GSEA had made public the emails of certain members of the LGBTQ+ community so people could reach out to them and ask questions.

“The types of emails we received were horrifying,” said the teacher.  “We stayed up reading emails that no one should  have to read. We are not in a place right now as a community to subject ourselves to that …

“Our names are linked to this curriculum, and there is real fear. … We didn’t want to be out this weekend in Evanston because we are truly fearful. I need that to sit with all of you. We are now truly unsafe in this community in which some of us live and all of us teach in.”

No Board member made a motion that the Board issue a statement supporting the curriculum or supporting a no opt-out policy.

On Aug. 9, Governor J.B. Pritzker signed House Bill 246, which requires all schools to include LGBTQ+ history in its curriculum by July 2020.

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...