When transgender special education teacher Ren Heckathorne wrote a letter explaining their gender identity to co-workers in Evanston-Skokie School District 65, they were optimistic that staff members would be supportive.
Heckathorne — who goes by the pronouns they, them, theirs — is a District 65 graduate who said that being hired in 2014 to teach at Park School in Evanston was “the realization of a childhood dream.” But just one day after a letter explaining Heckathorne’s transition was shared in October 2016, they said the judgement and condemnation from a group of co-workers in District 65 was swift.
According to Heckathorne, the negative responses ranged from complaints from a group of teachers’ assistants that she made them “feel uncomfortable” to a comment from a co-worker that a transgender teacher “should not be changing students’ diapers.”
“The response I got from (administrators) after I reported an incident was ‘It was taken care of,’ but no one’s comments stopped,” Heckathorne said.
In response to a list of Heckathorne’s specific allegations, Melissa Messinger, District 65′s spokeswoman, said district officials would not comment on any of them, saying they were personnel issues. The district did, however, release a short statement.
“Progress is being made on procedures to demonstrate the board’s resolve to protect transgender and gender expansive employees. District leadership remains committed to ensuring safe, inclusive workplaces for all employees,” Messinger wrote in the statement.
Three years later, and after Heckathorne said they reported more than a dozen gender-identity-related incidents, the District 65 school board on Oct. 21 amended its workplace discrimination and harassment policy to specifically include gender identity, a district spokeswoman said.
But the school board’s recent overhaul of the district’s policy to include gender identity is too little and too late, said Heckathorne, who returned to the classroom recently after taking a three-week personal leave to recover from the experience.
Heckathorne said more specific procedures and enforcement are needed to ensure transgender employees are protected from workplace discrimination and harassment.
Becca Mui, the education manager at GLSEN, a New York-based nonprofit that supports research and policies designed to protect LGBTQ students, said Heckathorne’s experience is likely playing out in other classrooms across the U.S., where school districts have not yet updated workplace discrimination policies to include protections for transgender employees.
“There is a wide-range of reasons why transgender educators don’t feel supported, and some of it is not intentionally negative, but because schools haven’t received the information and professional development that is needed,” Mui said.
School boards and administrators crafting policies to protect transgender employees need to follow best practices, for example, ensuring that a teacher’s preferred pronouns are used, Mui said.
Illinois law protects employees from discrimination and harassment based on gender identity under the state’s Human Right Act, and such protections are also federally mandated under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, said Ed Yohnka, ACLU Illinois spokesman.
“Schools should not be the place where any discrimination or harassment is taking place, be it against teachers or students, for any reason,” Yohnka said. “The most important thing is that schools enforce the law, and not permit (harassment) in any way.”
School districts should be, and most times are, attentive to the needs of students to protect them from harassment and bullying, or any kind of discrimination, but employees also need to be conscious as well, Yohnka said.
In Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker recently signed a law requiring that public schools include history lessons about the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Illinois and the United States. That prompted District 65 to launch its own LGBTQ+ Equity Week curriculum earlier this month, well in advance of the new law taking effect on July 1, 2020.
While the law requires the lessons be delivered to students before the completion of eighth grade, the District 65 LGBTQ curriculum isbeing taught in various formsaccording to grade level to all of the district’s roughly 8,000 students. That decision prompted criticism from a group of dozens of District 65 parents, who signed a petition and letter lambasting the move.
“Between the lessons and morning announcements, 100 (plus) instructional minutes over four days has been dedicated to LGBTQ+ equity content,” the parent group wrote in an Oct. 8 letter to the District 65 school board and administrators.
“In a district where instructional time is already at a premium, this seemingly haphazard decision to supplant the regular, board-approved curriculum is confusing,” the group wrote, adding: “To be clear, we stand with District 65 in affirming that all students should feel safe at school, without fear or threat of disrespect or bullying. We disagree that ‘encouraging our students to feel safe and feel seen [and to] feel valued and capable of growth,’ requires a week-long mandatory LGBTQ+ celebration via lessons that fail to account for the perspectives of all stakeholders.”
Concerned about Heckathorne’s well-being, she and her husband reached out to a third party and were outraged to learn the details, she said.