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McHenry County schools get proactive on transgender student policies, resources

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School leaders in McHenry County are trying to be proactive in becoming more educated when it comes to providing resources and creating policies for transgender students.

Palatine Township School District 211 recently approved a deal allowing a transgender student, who was born male and identifies as female, to use a separate changing area in a girls locker room.

Although there are no open investigations regarding transgender student issues in McHenry County, according to a statement from U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman Dorie Nolt, the McHenry County Regional Office of Education is looking to better educate schools on transgender student issues.

In February, a conference will be held for staff to provide information regarding policy, procedures and day-to-day interaction regarding transgender students, Laura Crain said. Crain, who works with the McHenry County Substance Abuse Coalition and regional office of education, is helping set up the conference, which does not yet have a set date and time.

“Our view is we want to make sure that any tools that our schools need are available to them, and if they’re not facing (issues regarding transgender students) in their district right now, they may not be looking for information,” Crain said.

Crain said as far as she knows, Community High School District 155 is the only district that has put out a statement that specifically addresses how a school will handle transgender student questions.

On Nov. 24, Johnnie Thomas, superintendent of Community High School District 155, sent out a letter addressed to families and students to inform them how the district is approaching the matter.

The letter stated that based on the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights position, as demonstrated in District 211’s case, “when a D-155 student communicates a request to use the bathroom or locker room of the student’s affirmed gender identity, we will honor that request.”

District locker rooms will have a limited number of individual changing locations, but no one will be required to use the changing facilities, according to the letter.

In school policies or handbooks, other districts cite Title IX, which “protects all students, including transgender students, from sex discrimination in K-12 districts that receive federal funding,” according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Dan Bertrand, superintendent of Marengo Community High School District 154, said Marengo schools follow policies put forth by the Illinois Association of School Boards.

“I think people are just really trying to be proactive, and at the same time be sensitive to all the students as well,” Bertrand said, adding that he thinks the policies currently in place are sufficient.

“(It’s a) difficult situation. Some of the guidelines given to schools are suggested; (there is) no court precedent or case laws directing us on what we need to do to accommodate those students,” Bertrand said.

JR Bocian, director of counseling at McHenry High School East Campus, said learning about resources for transgender students was something recently discussed at a regular meeting held with McHenry County high school guidance department representatives.

“Due to the locker room situation and due to some of the other stuff that’s been heavily publicized, we don’t want to walk into a situation with a lot of options and a lot of surprises,” Bocian said. “We want to be prepared and really just have healthy discussion on how we can best serve our students.”

Toni Weaver, who started a Parents of Transgender Individuals group in McHenry County, and Mary Genzler, co-leader of PTI, spoke at the meeting for school guidance staff, and are looking to continue to provide information on transgender students.

Genzler said she has a transgender daughter who was born male and grew up in Crystal Lake.

“She is 32 years old, so she went through all of her questioning on her own because she didn’t feel like she could come to her dad and me,” Genzler said.

Genzler said when her daughter was transitioning, there wasn’t much knowledge about transgender individuals.

“It’s changed,” Genzler said. “And I feel like I need to be part of that change, too. I need to be an advocate.”

The Illinois Safe School Alliance is a nonprofit organization that is working to help educate schools in Illinois on transgender issues and help with policy reform.

Anthony Papini, executive director of the organization, which has offices in Chicago and Peoria, said, “There’s still a lot of unfamiliarity with transgender issues, and that’s OK, but this unwillingness to learn or to commit to better understanding is a value that I don’t think any education institution can take.”

Papini said schools need to “affirm and recognize students’ gender identity and expression and create a safe and supportive environment.”

He said in McHenry County, the alliance has worked with Cary-Grove High School and Woodstock High School to train staff on LGBT and trans issues.

• The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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