D91 to teach LGBT contributions

IL law aims to address inequality in curriculum, textbooks

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By Maria Maxham

Beginning July 1, 2020, public schools in Illinois, including Forest Park District 91, will be required to incorporate contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals into their curriculum. 

House Bill 246, known as the Inclusive Curriculum Law, was signed into effect in August 2019 by Governor J.B. Pritzker and amends school code in two ways. First, textbooks purchased through the textbook block grant program must teach the roles and contributions of all people and groups protected under the Illinois Human Rights Act. This includes LGBT individuals. Second, schools must alter curriculum to educate students about the contributions of LGBT people to the United States and to Illinois.

"We believe that it is not only required by law but the right thing to do," said Superintendent Louis Cavallo about the Inclusive Curriculum Law. 

"District 91 has adopted an equity imperative that includes a commitment to nurturing dialogue around all issues of inequity, including gender identity and sexual orientation.  The district will be examining our history curriculum this year for opportunities to include meaningful, age-appropriate instruction on the contributions of LGBTQ [the "Q" stands for questioning, queer or both] individuals for inclusion in our instruction for the 2020-2021 school year."

State Senator Kimberly A. Lightford was one of the sponsors of this bill, and state Representative Chris Welch voted in favor of it.

According to Equality Illinois, one of the bill's initiators, other groups who supported the passage of HB 246 included the ACLU of Illinois, Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital, the Chicago History Museum, the Chicago Teachers Union, the Illinois Association of School Social Workers, the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, the Illinois State Board of Education, the Office of the Cook County Board President, and the National Association of Social Workers – Illinois Chapter.

"The Illinois School Code has been continuously amended and updated to ensure it provides an accurate and representative presentation of the contributions of historically marginalized communities," said Equality Illinois in a fact sheet on the bill. "For example, the study of black history was added in the 1980s, the study of Asian Americans' roles and contributions was added in 2004, and the study of people with disabilities was added in 2010." In other words, the school code changes as equality in the United States progresses.

The bill did not make it through unanimously, however. It passed in the Illinois House 60 to 42. Representative Tom Morrison, a Republican from Palatine, voted against the Inclusive Curriculum Bill. 

He said in a phone interview that the state has already passed down too many curriculum additions, making it difficult for teachers and administrators to keep up with the changes and trying to pack too much into limited teaching time. He also said that recent studies by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation point to the fact that four out of 10 Americans can't pass a basic multiple-choice test of questions from the U.S. citizenship test.

"If we aren't even teaching the basics, why add more?" said Morrison, who takes issue with so many "niche groups," as he calls them, being forced into curriculum.

He also stated that historical figures such as Jane Addams and Sally Ride should be famous for what they did, not who they were married to or loved. He added that parents he's spoken to are uncomfortable with the introduction of terms and topics, such as bisexuality, because it might confuse children. 

Other opponents of the bill included religious groups and "pro family" groups, such as the Illinois Family Institute, which called this new legislation an "unfunded mandate to indoctrinate your children."

Even popular Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, described on the Tribune website as having a "liberal/progressive bent," wrote against the proposed legislation in May of 2018. He referred to the California State Board of Education rejecting "two new history textbooks for K-8 school students because they failed to address the plausible speculation that Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and President James Buchanan were gay."

"Children should learn about the diverse cross-currents that have shaped America, and ideally gain a measure of pride in discovering the contributions of people like them," said Zorn in his column. "But there's a vast gulf between 'should' and 'must'." He criticized the fact that lawmakers are making curriculum choices that they have no experience or right to make.

To proponents of the Inclusive Curriculum Law, all students, including LGBTQ+ children, need more support. Studies show that such children suffer as a result of schools being "hostile environments" for them. GLSEN (pronounced "glisten") is an organization that, since 1990, has been working "to improve an education system that too frequently allows [LGBTQ ] students to be bullied, discriminated against or fall through the cracks."

In the 2017 National School Climate Survey of over 23,000 students aged 13 to 21, GLSEN found some distressing results. A majority of LGBTQ students, nearly sixty percent, "felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation."

"Seventy percent of LGBTQ students were verbally harassed, 28.9 percent were physically harassed (e.g. pushed or shoved), and 12.4 percent were physically assaulted (e.g. punched, kicked, injured with a weapon) based on sexual orientation," according to the report.

The effects of these occurrences play out in school attendance (LGBTQ students who experienced high levels of harassment were three times as likely to miss school than other students), grades (GPAs of these students are lower), and self-esteem, among other things. LGBTQ students experiencing a lot of in-school victimization also suffer from more depression than other students and are less likely to begin planning for post-secondary education.

"One of the best ways to overcome intolerance is through education and exposure to different people and viewpoints," said state Senator Heather Steans, who co-sponsored and championed this bill, on her website. "An inclusive curriculum will not only teach an accurate version of history but also promote acceptance of the LBGTQ community."

"Historically, gay, lesbian and transgender people have been treated as second-class citizens: persecuted, discriminated against and hidden," said the other lead sponsor of the bill, state Representative Anna Moeller, a Democrat from Elgin, in a statement on her Facebook page. 

"As our society has evolved to rectify these injustices, our school curriculum should as well. I hope all Illinois schools will embrace the opportunity to show that we all are equal and valuable through this common-sense update to their curriculum."

D91 in Forest Park had an LGBTQ organization for students, but it disbanded at the end of the 2018-19 school year when the teachers running it left the district. According to Scott Dunnell, D91's public relations and communications manager, administration is currently talking to school social workers about starting the club again.

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