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LGBT Youth Seeking More Support in Chicago Public Schools

By Curtis Black, Newstips Editor, Community Media Workshop

A grassroots organizing campaign led by LGBT youth has won agreement from CPS chief Ron Huberman on a new advisory council to promote the school district’s policies against discrimination and harassment.

The agreement comes weeks after another youth-led campaign won an expanded anti-discrimination policy from the Board of Education.

Meeting with members of the citywide coalition Gender Just and other groups on August 18, Huberman offered to fund an “intervention team” or advisory council of students and community members that would develop a student justice handbook and guide development of a training curriculum for CPS staff.

The team will also be tasked with developing a grievance process for students with discrimination and harassment issues that their own schools aren’t addressing adequately, said Sam Finkelstein of Gender Just.

CPS’s anti-discrimination policy was expanded to add gender identity and expression to the list of protect categories at the school board’s July 22 meeting. That decision followed a drive by young people working with the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, during which nearly a thousand signatures were collected on petitions.

The August meeting followed a community forum with Huberman in June where Gender Just proposed eight measures as part of their “safe and affirming education” campaign. These included a district accountability organizer to assist gay-straight alliances in every school; comprehensive sex education, covering condom use and diverse sexual orientations; accountability for security guards; attention to the potential impacts of school closings on vulnerable students; and a directive to principals emphasizing the district’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies.

Gender Just wanted mandatory training for all staff; Huberman agreed to develop a curriculum for new staff orientation that would also be available online, Finkelstein said. A letter to principals emphasizing district policies will go out with the new curriculum, he said.

Good policies, not always followed

CPS has good policies but they aren’t implemented everywhere, Finkelstein said. “There are a lot of disparities and they tend to match up with income levels and race,” he said.

Gay-straight alliances — GSAs — are generally found on the north side, with very few on the south or west sides, he said. Often schools won’t allow students to form GSAs, even though CPS policy requires them to do so if they allow any student clubs, Finkelstein said.

“Teachers weren’t really supportive,” said Akhia Daniels, a recent graduate of South Shore High School for Leadership. “They would see stuff going on and not address it.”

“School is supposed to be a place for education, a place to be safe, not a place to be judged on whether you like boys or girls,” she said. “They want you to do all these things and at the same time they’re not offering you a safe environment.”

Another campaign member is Chicago Youth Initiating Change, a citywide social justice group. CYIC emphasizes problems with Renaissance 2010, including problems caused for vulnerable students by closings and relocations.

Military academies, security guards

Renaissance 2010 schools present other problems, Finkelstein said: with “more flexibility and less accountability,” charter and contract schools associated with Renaissance 2010 are more likely to disregard or feel unbound by CPS policy. Discrimination, harassment and violence are particularly issues in the military academies which are proliferating, he said.

Blocks Together, a community organization which organizes youth in West Humboldt Park, joined the campaign because BT’s longtime effort to improve training for security guards meshed with its goals, said Cecile Carroll. At last month’s meeting, Huberman said CPS is finally overhauling training to raise standards and increase professionalism among guards.

Blocks Together’s youth council wants to be at the table — in part to ensure that principles of restorative justice are part of the training — Carroll said. “It’s a good opportunity to help influence the culture of security guards all across the system, rather than school by school, the way we have been working,” she said.

While school districts in cities across the country are beginning to address the concerns of LGBT youth, Chicago’s efforts are noteworthy because of the direct involvement of youth in designing responses, Finkelstein said. “Chicago has a robust youth organizing movement right now,” he said.

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