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Huberman attends forum on LGBTQ students [17/24 June, 2009]

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Gender JUST (Justice United for Societal Transformation) held its first Safe and Affirming Education Community Forum at Lozano Library, 1805 S.  Loomis, June 15.  The event highlighted the issues facing LGBTQ/GNC (lesbian, gay bisexual, transgender and queer/gender non-conforming) students in CPS.  The group invited Ron Huberman, the openly gay chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools (CPS), to attend.

Huberman addressed the packed room of students, educators, parents and activists at the beginning, saying how “excited” he was to be there because “many of these issues are ones I certainly care a great deal about.  I’m gay.  I came out in high school when I was 15 years old, and that was 20 years ago.  We have a long way to go, but there’s progress.”  He said that he was “looking forward to the proposals to improve the level of respect.”  Huberman also added that he could not “say yes or no to every proposal.  This is an opening dialogue and the start of many meetings to see how we can make CPS work better for every student at CPS.”

The forum proceeded as a set of demands proposed by a panel of 14 students, parents and educators of Gender JUST and allied organizations.  Huberman was accompanied by Renae Ogletree, director of student development at CPS.

Esmeralda Roman of Gender JUST explained that the group was motivated by a “need for safe and affirming education” within the context of the different forms of injustice faced by students, including economic and racial issues.  [Full disclosure: this reporter is a member of the group] .  Over the course of the evening, panelists presented statistics about LGBTQ student issues into their presentations: 85% of LGBTQ students report that teachers never or rarely interfere when they see students being harassed, and 44% are physically assaulted.

Each panelist submitted a demand for reform addressed to Huberman; the demands had been collectively formulated at Gender JUST meetings prior to the forum.  Roman described herself as a “lesbian mom to a teenage son [who was] bullied for years” and her frustration when the usual solutions, like speaking to the principal, proved fruitless.  She asked for a district-wide accountability officer to whom students and educators could report their grievances, and who would enforce non-discrimination policies and provide training resources.  Lucky Mosqueda spoke about being marginalized at Roosevelt High School as a student with a disability and an androgynous lesbian.  She said she struggled to find intellectual and social support but was marginalized both at home and school.  She asked for the creation of a curriculum that was not heterosexist or ablist.

Jose Delgado spoke being in Senn High school and a sex education teacher who spoke only of “abstinence [as] the key to a healthy relationship.”  Delgado said that when he asked, “How do you protect yourself during anal sex with another man?” the response he got was that “sex is between a man and a woman” and that anything else was “immoral and wrong.”  Delgado said that the lack of sexual information for LGBTQ students could prove dangerous, a point driven home to him when an 18-year-old friend was diagnosed as HIV-positive.  Delgado stressed the need for comprehensive sexual information taught by professional sex educators who will discuss oral, anal and vaginal sex as well as related issues like masturbation, sexual violence, self-esteem, contraception and condoms.

Chantelle, a student at Julien High school and member of the group Chicago Youth Initiating Change spoke about Renaissance 2010, controversial among education activists because of the number of school closings it has initiated.  Chantelle described the program as “catastrophic because it took away vital resources which could empower students.”  She said that closing high schools, high teacher-student ratios, and cutting teachers put students at higher risk of violence.  Describing the harassment of a fellow openly transgender school student, she asked: “Who is at higher risk for violence when their community is taken away through the unjust practice of closing or phasing out our schools?” She asked for a reevaluation of Renaissance 2010, an end to cutting teachers in October and the creation of peer-to-peer mentoring programs that would respect gender identity.

Students not feeling safe in schools was a recurring theme, as was the need to add gender identity and gender expression to CPS’s non-discrimination policy.  Ahkia Daniels described a police officer tell a fellow female student that “ [i] f you want to dress like a man, I will treat you like a man.”  Richard Moore emphasized the need to go beyond “disciplining strategies that only deal with violence and harassment after the fact.”  He asked for “restorative justice strategies” to be put in place instead.  Daniels and Moore asked Huberman to sign a directive encapsulating the principles of the forum.  The room broke out into chants as attendees pressed him to sign.

Huberman responded that “any directive consists of lots of different pieces.  I embrace the underlying nature of this directive [but] we have to use the protocol of CPS.  The problems presented here are real and real solutions are needed.”  Emphasizing that he appreciated the work of the forum, he added, “the issues I care about are the issues you care about” and that he was concerned with “how you change policy on a global level.”  Chantelle reminded him that “a promise without a deadline is a promise broken.”  Huberman committed to meeting panelists within a 60-day period for follow-up discussions.  He also said that some of the issues, such as training of security guards, were already under consideration and suggested that the testimonies of students be used in a video as a resource for students and teachers.

Speaking to Windy City Times, Ogletree said she was impressed by the “compelling arguments.”  She said, “You have a gay CEO, and a gay director of student development, speaking to the gay community about changes that need to be made.  It just shows that being gay doesn’t mean that you know everything or that we are doing the right things.”  She added, “I hope that by the fall we will have addressed these issues.”  Sam Finkelstein, of Gender JUST, said that, “While it’s a shame that Huberman was unwilling to make it as productive [by agreeing to the solutions that the youth had developed], it’s a great start in initiating a dialogue between youth and CPS.  We are going to continue to push him until we can get these issues addressed in our schools.”

Originally published in Windy City Times, June 24, 2009.

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