“This Board should not be our students’ first bully.”

These moving, affirming words were spoken by a member of the Elgin District U46 School Board near the end of a more than three hour meeting on Monday, September 12th.  The session was held to discuss a recent move by the school’s administration to allow a student who is transgender at one of the district’s middle schools to use a locker room consistent with his/her gender identity.  (The student has not been identified.)  The issue only became known when a Board member decided to make the matter public.

Working at the ACLU of Illinois, I have learned about the need to recognize students who are transgender and allow them to use locker rooms and bathrooms consistent with the gender they are living. I have watched over many months as my colleagues, especially John Knight, have led this fight for a young girl who is transgender in District 211 – a fight that is now in court, and has become a national news story.

But this debate was personal for me.  I’m a graduate of U-46, and cherish my high school experience.  I was curious if the teachers and the administrators that I’d respected so much as a student would live up to my teenage perceptions.  I wondered how the community in which I was raised would respond to this matter – with tolerance and inclusion, or with the type of angry scenes that marked the debate about the ACLU’s client in District 211.

So, Monday evening, I attended the Board meeting along with dozens of others.  Over the course of the long evening, more than 60 people spoke – supporting the administration for respecting the student’s gender identity, or denouncing the administration and demanding that the District’s longstanding policy that respects the dignity of all students be reversed.

Early on, any concerns I entered with had subsided.  Although there were speakers in opposition to the administration, they were outweighed by the voices that came from within District U-46 and spoke in support for students who are transgender.  Mike Demovsky, a former teacher of mine and the principal at one of the District’s high schools, noted that from his perspective “(o)ur diversity is our strength.”  Other teachers, administrators, parents and even Board members spoke in a strong, clear voice supporting the idea that all students, including those who are transgender, deserve to be treated with dignity and with respect.

Imagine what it must be like for students in this district today – straight, gay, transgender, African American, Caucasian, Asian American or Latino, disabled or abled bodied – to know that the leaders in their schools will speak so powerfully about the need to protect those who are most vulnerable.

By the end of the evening, it was clear that a strong majority of the Board continues to support the District’s policy and that transgender students will be able to use the bathroom and locker room facilities that make them most comfortable.  It made me very proud to have attended District U-46, and to know that the lessons on mutual respect were not just part of the textbooks.  These moving speeches reminded me that school is a place where learning can take place – and not just academic learning, but also lessons about tolerance and understanding.

We commonly discuss school pride in terms of academics and sports teams, but after this meeting I am most proud of my school district’s commitment to each student’s individual value.  That is a sense of pride that will stay with me forever.