Teachers and community members speak out against LGBTQ education opt-outs


Daily file photo from Noah Frick-Alofs

D65 Board president Suni Kartha. Kartha said the communication of LGBTQ curriculum instruction to families created opt-out opportunities.

Cassidy Wang, Assistant City Editor

Teachers and community members spoke out about students opting out of LGBTQ+ Equity Week in Evanston/Skokie School District 65 at Monday’s policy board meeting.

Some students were given an opportunity to opt out of the classroom on the first day of the week-long curriculum, said Ren Heckathorne, a teacher at Park School who has spoken out at board meetings about facing continuous abuse and harassment over their gender identity.

Starting Oct. 7, schools in the district engaged students and educators in a “week-long curriculum that celebrates and affirms LGBTQ+ identities.” Developed by educators and members of the district’s Gender and Sexuality Educators Alliance, the curriculum also seeks to create a “deeper sense of allyship” within schools and create an inclusive environment for all.

The development of the curriculum follows Governor J.B. Pritzker signing House Bill 246 in August 2019, which requires all schools to integrate LGBTQ history into their curricula by July 2020.

“We were promised there was no opting out of this week,” Heckathorne said. “We went believing that. To now be told and hear that you can opt out and parents can ask for that to happen, it’s horrifying in the sense of where does that stop? What else can you opt out of?”

Although there was no mandate that communicated an opt-out alternative, Stacy Beardsley, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said families were able to know the time of the LGBTQ instruction. However, she said she was not involved with the “designating ahead of an opt out space.”

D65 Board president Suni Kartha said the very communication of the curriculum instruction times to families created opt-out opportunities.

“It doesn’t make sense if we’re saying there’s no opt out, but then telling people what time the curriculum will be in class so they could pull their children out, that sounds like opt-out to me,” Kartha said. “Or if they’re providing an alternative space, that sounds like an opt-out.”

Kartha said there should be communication to school leaders that there is no obligation to provide an alternative space for students who are opting out of the classroom instruction. While she recognizes some parents will pull their kids out for the entire week, she said the board should not provide specific times of any curriculum without a legal reason.

“I stand by the no opt-out,” Beardsley said. “It is not district policy to be creating a space in advance of who can be in school and who can not be part of the learning… All members of the school are part of the learning. If a family says they are refusing to have their child as a part of that learning, (we) are not providing that space in the building.”

Meg Krulee, the president of the D65 Educators’ Council, said she “would like to see the board truly standing behind this.” She said the board has still not officially communicated support for a no opt-out policy.

“I would like to see the board make a statement publicly to the community around this week in supporting it and that actually you are standing behind the no opt out,” Krulee said. “I haven’t publicly seen anything written by the board saying that you are supporting this, the curriculum, and that we are not opting it out.”

The board discussed integrating LGBTQ topics more cohesively into school curricula, throughout the year, in the future to prevent opportunities for opting out.

For Heckathorne, seeing students away from the group was “appalling.”

“Today was day one,” Heckathorne said. “To know that students were given a safe place out of the classroom from this work is horrendous. It is absolutely, truly appalling to know that we’re not flying these flags on the flagpole. It’s truly appalling. You all keep saying, ‘now we’re going to change.’ You’re not. The change isn’t happening. You have kids who are sitting away from the group.”

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