Should time-honored school traditions dubbing students as kings and queens for homecomings and proms be changed in favor of more gender spectrum-inclusive titles?
That’s among the recommendations of a new state report on inclusivity for students with nonconforming gender identities, which has sparked a conversation among suburban school leaders.
The report suggests Illinois’ public schools drop reliance on traditional male-female gender descriptions and train teachers to use more inclusive language when addressing groups of students.
“The training should include how to ensure things such as inspirational speeches, motivational phrases, locker-room talk, pep rallies, and team chants are inclusive and gender-neutral. Examples of phrases that should be eliminated include ‘man up’ or ‘don’t be a sissy,'” the report recommends.
The Illinois State Board of Education this month will issue guidance to schools for creating policies based on the task force’s recommendations, spokeswoman Jackie Matthews said.
“It’s important to recognize that our society as a whole, not just schools, are in a period of transition,” said Mark Kovack, associate superintendent for student services for Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211.
District 211 is well-versed on gender identity debates after recently resolving a nearly 4½-year legal battle on the issue of transgender students’ access to locker rooms. Last November, the school board voted to no longer require transgender students to use privacy stalls made available for all students in locker rooms.
“As a school district, we have been responding to students’ unique needs forever, long before gender became a focal point,” Kovack said.
District 211 schools have homecoming and prom kings and queens, which has been a controversial topic for years before the task force released its report, he said.
“Culture is something that develops over time and it doesn’t transform overnight,” Kovack said. “Usually, it takes a little bit of time to see a movement. We are engaged in that and trying to determine the best ways to go about bringing about positive change.”
Some schools nationwide have opted to recognize a group of students as “homecoming royalty court” instead of singling out individuals.
“Such conversations have been unfolding at public schools over the past several years with increased visibility of trans identities, said Nat Duran, youth engagement manager for Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, which provides training to schools and supports youth in partnership with the GSA (Gender and Sexuality Alliances) Network.
Officials at Elgin Area School District U-46 soon will review the task force’s recommendations and district policies.
The state’s second-largest school district weathered controversy a few years ago when administrators decided to allow a transgender middle school student access to the locker room and restroom corresponding with that student’s gender identity.
“We, as a district, kind of take things case by case,” said school board member Veronica Noland, who served on the state task force.
Beyond titles, the task force report addresses school districts’ policies toward providing equal educational opportunities for students of varying gender identities and expression and preventing discrimination, harassment and bullying, as prohibited by state and federal laws.
Some educators and schools may be less in step philosophically with the state recommendations, but Duran believes it’s only a matter of time before practices change.
“Learning new things is just as much about unlearning old things,” Duran said, “and that can be a very vulnerable process.”
Affirming and Inclusive Schools Task Force recommendations
The Illinois State Board of Education should consider providing guidance on procedures for:
• Changing a name and gender marker in student records that recognizes that a legal name change is not a prerequisite.
• Updating a name and gender marker in data and information submitted to the state.
• Offering a nonbinary gender marker option for submitting data and information to the state.
• Using an affirmed name on standardized testing.
• Under state law, the name and gender marker recorded in a student’s permanent record should include both affirmed name and gender, as well as legal name and gender. The legal name and gender shall not be disclosed except as required by law.
• Under state law, directory information should include only a student’s affirmed name.
• The Illinois Department of Human Rights should consider issuing guidance to districts on complying with the Illinois Human Rights Act.
• Guidance should include IHRA’s requirements on: the rights of transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming individuals; students’ participation in sports and other activities; protecting students from bullying or harassment; and respecting students’ affirmed names and pronouns, including by updating student records.
• The state should consider: exploring how teacher preparation programs can address issues relating to supporting transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming students; working with stakeholders to evaluate the state’s comprehensive sexual education curriculum for kindergarten through 12th grade; and promoting greater inclusion in school-based activities, including engaging with Illinois Elementary School Association and Illinois High School Association to review their policies on inclusion.
To view the full report, visit illinois.gov.