Two state groups suggested that a local school board rewrite a policy aimed at transgender students, with one saying it fell in “unsettled areas of the law” and another saying it was “pretty clearly in violation of three laws.”
The debate was over four sentences that were added to O’Fallon District 90’s anti-discrimination policy after a transgender student asked to use the bathroom in the nurse’s office two years ago.
District 90 has more than 3,500 students from pre-K to eighth grade, making it the largest elementary school district in O’Fallon.
The school board voted last year to update the policy to spell out rules for students’ ID badges, bathroom usage and involvement in sports.
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When they met Tuesday night, the board members approved a revision.
What does O’Fallon’s policy say about transgender students?
All but one board member had voted to approve the old rules, as Jason Boone was absent from that meeting.
The policy used to say that students’ records, including the ID badges they wear at school, would only include “legal names” and biological sex.
Students’ sex at birth also determined which bathroom and locker room they used and which sports team they played on, according to the board’s old policy.
Another option they had was to use a gender-neutral bathroom, such as the one in the nurse’s office. That alternative will continue to be available to students.
Board members have said their goal with the policy was to give school administrators directions to follow if another transgender student sought accommodations in the future, taking parents’ concerns and state and federal laws into account.
The biggest difference in the rewrite is that it will allow students to choose the name that appears on their IDs and on the class rosters their teachers use. Students will soon be able to tell the school their preferred names once a year with their parents’ consent.
Historically, the district hasn’t allowed any student to change their name in school records even if Jonathan went by Jack or Jon, for example. Boone argued in favor of allowing them to start at the policy committee meeting last month.
“Jack and Jon, it doesn’t matter to that kid at all. For a student who’s transitioning, it makes a difference,” Boone said.
CJ Casconi, who attended O’Fallon schools growing up, said being a transgender man means having to fight to get people to see him the way he sees himself on a daily basis.
“I still get called ‘ma’am’ on the phone,” he said. “... Most days, it doesn’t bother me. But sometimes, it’s just that little, like, ‘Ow.’ Just ‘Ow.’ When you’ve put so much work and effort and money into presenting male. And it’s not their fault. My voice is high.
“I’m not going to start World War III with them over it, but it hurts, and I can’t imagine being 13.”
The rewrite states that students will also be able to ask the athletic association overseeing their sport for permission to play on the team that matches their gender identity rather than their biological sex.
The revised rules were adopted Tuesday night with a 5-2 vote from the board.
Board members Boone, Matt Lloyd, Becky Drury, Rebecca Huller and Mary Baskett all voted in favor of the changes.
Board president John Wagnon and board member Steve Springer were the opposing votes. They said during the meeting that they preferred a slightly different version of the revision, which still would have allowed students to change their names on their IDs and ask to play on the sports teams that match their gender identity.
State groups have opposing opinions about the policy
The Illinois Association of School Boards had suggested that District 90 remove the rules for transgender students from the anti-discrimination policy. IASB is a nonprofit group that will recommend updates to school districts’ policies based on changes in the law, for example, if they pay for that service.
The association explained its reasoning in a note to the board:
“Adopting separate policies or inserting policy statements about accommodations and inclusion of transgender students in the educational program are unsettled areas of the law,” IASB stated. “Some lawyers believe doing so may open boards to equal protection challenges for not creating separate policies for other protected statuses, e.g., race, nationality, religion, etc.”
The association recommended that board members check with their attorney if they wanted to include rules for transgender students. At the policy committee meeting, Superintendent Carrie Hruby said that District 90’s lawyer agreed with IASB.
Brian Johnson, CEO of Equality Illinois, said he thinks District 90’s old rules for transgender students actually violated several laws — including the Illinois Human Rights Act, the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution and Title IX — all of which protect students from discrimination.
Equality Illinois is the state’s civil rights organization for LGBTQ people.
Johnson noted that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, which includes Illinois, made a precedent-setting decision in 2017. The appeals court sided with a transgender student who had sued to use the boys bathroom at school.
In that case, the court decided that providing a gender‐neutral alternative wasn’t enough to relieve the school district from liability.
Equality Illinois works with the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, which has reached out to District 90’s board with the same concerns.
Rodrigo Anzures-Oyorzabal, the policy and advocacy manager for the alliance, emailed board members to ask them to amend the anti-discrimination policy because he said it denies transgender students certain rights.
Board members’ emails about the policy were obtained by the Belleville News-Democrat through a Freedom of Information Act request.
According to Anzures-Oyorzabal, students have the right to use bathrooms and locker rooms and play on sports teams that match their gender and have school records changed to reflect their identity.
Casconi has shared his opinions with the board, too. He emailed to suggest that students be allowed to change their names on ID badges once a year, which is what the board later approved.
“The last thing I want to say is that this may seem pretty trivial, and I can see that viewpoint,” Casconi wrote in the message. “But for a trans kid struggling to figure themselves out and craving validation, the impact you could make would be massive.”
Casconi thanked the board during Tuesday’s meeting for the changes they approved. “From my perspective, to the community, it matters,” he said. “I’m really appreciative, and it makes difference.”
In an interview Tuesday, Anzures-Oyorzabal said he thought the board’s new policy would be an improvement, but he still didn’t think it was going to meet the needs of transgender students.
Some O’Fallon residents have also reached out the board to say they supported the old rules.
“We believe that the current policy adequately covers existing situations without creating questions and issues where none need to be addressed at this stage in students’ educations,” one family wrote in September.
Emails about transgender student drew attention to the board
Casconi, the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance and Equality Illinois were among the people and groups to ask District 90 board member Steve Springer to step down earlier this year.
The calls for Springer’s resignation stemmed, in part, from emails he sent about a transgender student that came to light in May.
He was responding to the superintendent’s message to the board that a transgender boy would be using the nurse’s office to take bathroom breaks and change for P.E. back in 2016.
“It seems that you have decided to change the God given biological makeup of this student without input from a court, the BOE or God,” Springer wrote. “The child is a girl. She needs to be referred to as a girl.
“I am saddened that she is having such problems and is confused. But confused is the status, and confusion is not a reason for the district to stand on it’s (sic) head.”
Springer then requested that the board begin talking about a policy for transgender students, which it would write over the next year and eventually adopt.
The rest of the board issued a statement about Springer’s comments after the emails were read aloud by a parent at a school board meeting.
“When he voiced his opinions, his voice was his alone,” the board stated. “Furthermore we do not agree with nor support the comments made in the released emails and will not endorse discriminatory policies of any kind.”