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At the Dec. 16 meeting of the District 65 School Board, members of the Board and administrators heard students, parents, experts and clergy members speak about the District’s LGBTQ+ Equity Week.

Many came to voice their support, responding to concerns and complaints expressed publicly to School District 65 administrators and Board members about the five-day curriculum, 30 minutes each day, devoted to LGBTQ+ issues during the week of Oct. 7-11.

Background

District 65 was ahead of the mandate of House Bill 246, signed on Aug. 9, 2019 by Governor J.B. Pritzker, requiring all schools to include LGBTQ+ history in its curriculum by July 2020.

District 65 chose the Oct. 7-11 week to coincide with National Coming Out Day, Oct. 11. That day commemorates the National March on Washington For Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1987 and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall demonstrations in New York City.

A partnership of District administrators and the District Educators Council (DEC, the teachers union), supported the curriculum. In a Sept. 24 letter to the District 65 community, Interim Superintendents Phil Ehrhardt and Heidi Wennstrom and DEC president Meg Krulee wrote that the week-long curriculum “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. 

Objections to LGBTQ+ Equity Week

Since October, the District has heard objections and concerns from parents and others. Some said they objected to the curriculum and the week itseslf, saying that such matters are best discussed in family rather than school settings. Some said they felt the curriculum was not age-appropriate. Others said they objected to the week and the curriculum on moral and religious grounds.

Judy Neeley, a District 65 parent, told the Board it was clear from the time her child was in kindergarten that he was “learning about the members of our LGBTQ community. … This is what our community looks like.”

Her child asked simple questions, she said, and she answered with what she believed were answers he could handle at the time – simple questions, simple answers.

“I don’t object to history, and I appreciate families. But much of the content on sex and gender in the lower grades is too soon – much too soon. Not all children have the cognitive development to process the complex ideas on gender identification and sexuality.

“I believe it’s harmful. …  The point is it is my responsibility as a parent to know and to protect my child from facts and explanations they can’t handle. Much of the content in kindergarten-through-third-grade levels is too much too soon.”

To the School Board members and administrators she said, “You guys are wrong about this. There must be a way to revise the content to respect and honor the LGBTQ+ members of the community and to preserve the well-being of kids who are not quite ready to hear complex concepts. You must do better. You’re really getting lost.”

Jessica Hockett, an education specialist and parent of two children in the District, said, “Last month, my husband and I wrote a letter about our concerns about the LGBTQ+ Equity Week curriculum that was signed by 50 other community members in support [of our position].

She presented four challenges – on behalf of my spouse and others” – to LGBTQ+ Equity Week, along with a request to make more information public.

First, she said, “We challenge the District decision to mandate the Equity Week curriculum. Neither the Board nor the District has answered our question about who made the decision to mandate the Equity Week. … Summer learning projects do not usually become mandated curriculum apart from an administrative process or a Board policy, let alone with advance notice. District 65 teachers were notified that they’d have to teach the lessons only three weeks prior to implementation, which is professionally disrespectful – speaking from my professional experience. Please explain the process, timeline and catalysts for that decision.”

Dr. Hockett and her group also challenged the District’s decision to disallow opt-outs. She said she understood that the District’s lawyers had opined that the curriculum did not deal with sex education, so the District was not legally bound to provide opt-outs.

However, she said, “Sex Education is not explicitly defined. How did the lawyers define it? Could it have fallen under ‘Family Life’ – which allows opt-outs? Please make public the legal decision.”

The third challenge was to the Board’s decision “to circumvent and publicly criticize parents’ objections to the Equity Week lessons. We spoke to parents across the District who spoke about their concerns and objections about Equity Week lessons to School District leaders.

“In contrast to what you said on Oct. 7, these parents aren’t ‘ignorant’ or ‘in need of further education from the District.’ From my perspective they understood the District’s position but they disagreed with it – respectfully but sincerely.”

Addressing Board President Suni Kartha, Dr. Hockett said, “They did read the lessons, Ms. Kartha. I read every single lesson – and I’m an expert in curriculum.

“We made, as other parents did, an informed decision about our child’s participation and felt that the lessons weren’t school-appropriate.”

The fourth challenge Dr. Hockett presented concerned “the District’s ongoing decisions to allow the display of flags and political slogans and symbols in schools and classrooms. It doesn’t matter if the signage or the slogan seems benign or seems aligned with the District. Please consider that you’re advocating particular political views and beliefs, which is in opposition to the oath that you all take as Board members.”

Another resident, Ikey Dixon said her “heart is broken that the achievement gap between white and minority students has not improved over the past 15 years.” She added, “When it comes down to the LGBTQ+ Equity Week, my thing is: Did you apply that same type of vigor and the same type of effort to bringing about equity in a curriculum for African Americans and Hispanic students?

“Was the same intent put into the curriculum to bring about equity and knowledge for African Americans and Hispanics in the School District as it was for the LGBTQ+ community?

“Ask yourself these questions. I‘m asking you these questions. Where is the true equity? Where is the true safety?”

Support for LGBTQ+ Equity Week

Student safety, acceptance and well-being were among the main reasons offered in support of LGBTQ+ Equity Week. Many audience members applauded after each speech, and this appreciation spread to Board members and administrators after the students spoke.

Parents and Experts Speak

Angela Cummings, a District 65 parent and who works in suicide prevention, said, “Our oldest son is a strong ally of the LGBTQ+ community and identifies himself as questioning. I give strong support to Equity Week. Having spent six years in suicide prevention, I cannot express strong enough that this type of education and support is absolutely critical to saving young lives.”

She cited data released in 2019 that 39% of LGBTQ youth have seriously considered suicide in the past 12 months; more than 50% of transgender youth have seriously considered suicide.

“One important thing to note,” Ms. Cummings said, “is that they did not have increased suicidal ideation because of who they are; they had increased suicidal ideation because of the surrounding environment – harmful rejection from and discrimination from family, friends, peers and society in general.

“These are alarming facts, but the good news is by focusing on protective factors for LGBTQ youth, we can dramatically improve outcomes. According to the study, LGBTQ youth who reported ‘one or more accepting adults in my life’ had a 40% reduced rate of attempted suicide. Just one accepting adult – one – can be the difference between life and death for these young people.

“The Equity week is crucial to increasing protective factors for our LGBTQ youth. … The Equity Week that you all have designed is data-based and age-appropriate, and it increases protective factors.”

District 65 parent Jason Hammett read a statement from his friend Dawn Ravine, the Sexuality Education Program Coordinator for The Potocsnak Family Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at Lurie Children’s Hospital.

Ms. Ravine meets Monday nights with LGBTQ students of color, all of whom were once District 65 students and most of whom began to come out in sixth or seventh grades. Only some of these young people have family support.

Ms. Ravine said in her letter, “I wish these students had had a week like this in middle school – a week to know they are not alone, and there is a history of LGBTQ people of color who have been leaders in our community, county and world. There are teachers and peers who sympathize. I think this curriculum is an important starting point to ensure teachers and parents have the resources to support our young people. It is more than a week of curriculum. It is a jumping-off point for intersectional equity work for safe and supportive school year-round. Even the handful of parent phone calls, as stressful as they might be for administrators, is an opportunity to educate a parent who might not realize the impact of discrimination on our students and the responsibility on our community to support all of our children.”

Smiling as she approached the lectern, Katie Page began by saying she is “not an expert in anything but “boring nerd mom from the Washington School District then added, “but husband said if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s being loud and Irish. I heard some of those negative voices were threatening to overwhelm the positive of LGBTQ week so I just wanted to say, [and she did,

emphatically], “I love LGBTQ week. It’s never too early to start learning about LGBTQ families.” She said she is lucky to have LGBTQ friends and “it’s never too early to have them be accepted – and loved.”

Kerry Clark Shonk, parent of a Walker School fourth-grader, said, “I want to voice my support for the week as well as for the Gender and Sexuality Educators Alliance (GSEA). I want you to know that I’m one of the many parents who support the committee and the practice of setting aside a week to discuss LBGTQ identity and history. I read through the curriculum and as a school social worker I found it to be thoughtfully developed and wholly developmentally appropriate for each grade level.

“I hope that the curriculum stays the same with any changes made only deepening children’s understanding of LGBTQ+ identity and history. … I know that the work the District is doing in this area is absolutely life-changing and life-saving.

“Students who do not see themselves acknowledged in their community are at risk for depression, suicidal ideation and suicide. By acknowledging the identity of all students, you’re increasing their sense of belonging, wholeness and self-acceptance … Their friends who receive this same education are less likely to perpetuate bias and are better equipped to be of support to the LGBTQ-identifying peers now and in the future. In short, you’re saving lives. Pass my gratitude to the member of the GSEA Committee.”

Kristin White, another District 65 parent, said, “I am here to voice my gratitude and unquestioned support for the way District 65 has chosen to implement House Bill 246 that requires that all students in secular public schools to learn about the important contribution of LGBTQ individuals to the history of the country and state. I care about this because I believe it is the role of secular public schools to prepare students to thrive in the world we live in today, which includes people from all walks of life. Learning about the abundant diversity of people in our community and their contributions to our history is essential to helping our children build a clear and accurate narrative of who we have been, who we are and who we can become as a nation. … I want my daughter to be able to celebrate her family and feel that who she is and the adults she loves are worthy of respect and celebration by her community.”

Ms. White said she was “sad to see the way some parents reacted to this week of learning, ignorance and fear displayed so openly. … To see the students achieve those results in LGBTQ Equity week, along with the predictable but still surprising pushback reminded me I cannot take one single strop of progress for granted.

“My daughter and I had many conversations during this week. One of the most important was, ‘Why do we even need this week and other weeks like Black Lives Matter in February?’ We talked about what she will learn in social studies and history will tell the story that mainly focus on what white people have done; and many things done by black and indigenous people, LGBTQ+ and women may be invisible in her school books.. She understands that we must fight to ensure every single story gets told.”

Kristin Scotty, parent of a District 65 middle-school student, said she and her husband were “careful with language” as their daughter was growing up. “We said, ‘if you marry,’ not ‘when you marry’ and ‘your spouse’ rather than ‘your husband.’ She said her daughter had become involved with GSEA and was excited about LGBTQ+ Equity Week.

“About a week before LGBTQ Week, my daughter came out to us. … Later that night my husband and I talked. We talked about how grateful we were to the people in the District that that week happened … and that they are continuing to make GSEA available to our children and to the other children who need that support.  Our child needed additional support to tell us who she was. She received that support from the District, and for that I am grateful.

“I know there are parents who opposed this curriculum, and that is why we need it. … My 14-year-old will speak tonight. I am glad to have her speak but not happy that her first experience in speaking at any board meeting is rooted in her need to defend her identity, the identity of her friends to some of her classmates, to some of the parents, to some of our neighbors who just don’t get it.”

Evanston resident Karla Thomas and one of her daughters attended to support LGBTQ+ Equity Week and to thank the District “for the first step, which is often the hardest. The issue is complex but it comes down to realizing the humanity of all people. … One week a year is not enough.”

Visha Winston said she has seen positive results from LGBTQ+ Equity Week. “I want to let you know I am in support of teachers and staff members who are having to go into our schools and suck it up and smile and teach, knowing that parents and families come in here and speak out against their identity. That’s for all our marginalized staff members – and they do it with a smile on their face.”

Students Speak Out

“I am 12 years old, and I am a lesbian,” said Vivian. “It’s incredibly important that we have this program. Being lesbian I’ve been called gay many, many times; and it’s not fun and it’s not kind and it’s just not good at all. I believe education might help people. Also we need to monitor people that call people gay. … Just because someone’s different doesn’t make them dumb. It doesn’t make them stupid.  And LGBTQ week – I don’t know why anyone would say ‘no’ to that, because everyone’s equal.”

Angelina, an eighth-grader at Nichols Middle School, said, “I never really felt like I fit in at Nichols until this year, when I joined GSEA. Once a week at GSEA I feel like I can be myself and not be judged. When I found out about LGBRQ+ Equity Week, I was excited, because I thought that maybe for an entire week I could be myself around all my peers and in my classes, instead of just at GSEA.

“One of my teachers was really enthusiastic about the curriculum. Most students seemed to be interested in what they were learning. Unfortunately I had a different teacher, who didn’t teach the curriculum. It made me wonder if the teacher had problems with students like me. It was great to spend a week focusing on something that I am passionate about,” Angelina continued.

“I’m happy that the Board thinks it’s important to show LGBTQ+ students that we matter. I think LGBTQ+ Equity Week is a good start, but we still have a long way to go.”

Angelina gave an example of a field trip to Oakton Community College to which only “women” and not non-binary students were invited. It was called “Futures Unlimited. “My non-binary and gender-fluid friends were upset about being left out,” Angelina said.

Angelina said a teacher said that it took time to make these changes, “but then I saw on the OCC website that the conference had been open to non-binary and gender-fluid students. … It was on the website, so I’m not really sure where the misinformation came from. I’ve been told by teachers that they need time to get used to this gender-expansion world – so maybe that is the problem. So I would like to thank the Board … and ask you to see how policies for LGBTQ+ students can be implemented in day-to-day curricula.”

Ten-year-old Minna told the Board that during LGBTQ+ Equity week, “in one class people were saying some hurtful and disrespectful things about LGBTQ, because they thought it was different and made people in our class feel that they couldn’t be themselves, and it made them feel … that someone would do something to them if they did express how they were. …

“I think that it’s important that we still keeping doing LGBTQ Week, because it helps people. … Just became something might seem different to you doesn’t mean we should stop learning about it. When you walk into a shoe store, there are two sections – a girls’ section and a boys’ section, a women’s section and a men’s section. There’s a Choice A and Choice B but not a Choice C. Well, that makes a person feel like they have to fit into a category … to make them fit in with our community and to make them feel accepted. So I think it is important that we keep doing LGBTQ,” Minna concluded.

Laura, a fourth-grade student, said, “My mom asked me if I wanted to come tell you how I felt about LGBTQ Equity Week, and I said, ‘Yes.’ I think it’s important because kids and adults should not judge others, no matter what gender they are. People should learn to treat others how they want to be treated. … It is important to me that I can talk about my mom at school without being made fun of. During the LGBTQ week, some of my classmates said thing that were hurtful and disrespectful – I was concerned about my classmate. It was important and exciting to me to learn about LGBTQ during that week. It is important for all kids to learn about the world and their friends and to not make fun of them and be a bully. I have learned that sometimes it is parents who are uncomfortable talking about this stuff, not kids. … Everyone is beautiful and deserves to feel loved and treated with respect.”

Clergy Members Speak Up

Reverend Michael Wolf, senior minister at Lake Street Church, said, “I want to speak strongly in favor of LGBTQ+ Equity Week. … I feel like the kids of local citizens and global citizens you’re creating by doing this is really great stuff. I want to say personally and for the 200 or so people who gather on Sunday this matters a lot to us. So thank you. … When we learn more about people, when we learn more about who they are, that humanizes them and makes our ethical commitment come into sharp focus, and that we can understand what is our job as a community to create a safe place for everyone to be able to be present, to be themselves and who they are and I think that this curriculum goes a great job.”

ETHS alum Rabbi Rachel Weiss of Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation said she is Evanston’s first openly lesbian rabbi. She spoke first as a parent of a child at Lincoln School and one at Nichols Middle School and then as a leader in the faith community.

Rabbi Weiss said, “One of the Nichols teachers asked ‘Do LGBTQ students feel safe at Nichols?’ and my daughter rasied her hand and said, ‘No, Ms. Fox, they don’t. We don’t as families, as LGBTQ.’ And the teacher asked why that was.

“And [my daughter] said, ‘Because students make homophobic, bullying remarks to one another all day long and no teacher says anything to stop it.’

“That,” Rabbi Weiss said, “was the conversation we were having in my home.”

Rabbi Weiss read a letter signed by 22 members of Interfaith Action clergy in support of LGBTQ+ Equity Week: “We live in and serve the District 65 community. We are Jewish, Presbyterian, Catholic, Unitarian, Episcopalian, UCC, Methodist, Quaker, Lutheran, Buddhist, Mennonite, Baptist in the white and African American tradition and others.

“We express our support for the District 65 LGBTQ+ Equity Week. We applaud your strong and inclusive education and support this necessary education in our public school.”

Quoting from the Book of Leviticus, Rabbi Weiss said, “When one of our fellows is threatened our entire community is threatened. Neutrality is not an option. We are compelled to act in the face of acts which undermine the precepts of human dignity for all, especially as it relates to our LGBTQ students, teachers, family members, neighbors and all those targeted in a larger community. We are compelled to strengthen our support to create a more just compassionate and safe community for all our members. … We know that religious voice and traditions are often used by those who perpetrate hatred and violence on others, particularly the LGBTQ community. We are here to stand with our LGBTQ+ families and leaders as religious leaders to support you and to support… the dignity… of all human beings. ….”

Reverend Michael Nabors, president of the Evanston/North Shore NAACP and senior pastor at Second Baptist Church, spoke of some of the ways religion has been used to uphold inhumane actions.

“The long arm of religious history – all religions – has a daunting track record when it comes to human and civil rights. Religion has supported the African slave trade for 240 years. Religions used sacred texts to justify that kind of humanity – inhumanity. Religion supported the [status] of women as second-class citizens, using other sacred texts to justify such inhumanity. Religion is responsible for the genocide of Native Americans, the imprisonment of Japanese Americans and the holocaust in which 6 million of our Jewish brothers and sisters died; either with religious people supporting the annihilation or the silence of religious people.”

Rev. Nabors acknowledged that the District has been challenged for implementing LGBTQ+ Equity Week. “There are those who are against the District and we are keenly aware that this issue is one of sensitivity for a lot of people in our town. However, it is important that this sensitivity does not hinder human and equal rights for every single person.”

Meg Krulee, DEC President, concluded the public comment, saying, “I want to honor the young people and their courage and vulnerability.”