“No one was listening”: District 65 community fights for transgender, non-binary inclusive policies in response to harassment, inaction


Illustration By Sabrina Barnes

Special education teacher Ren Heckathorne started working at the District 65 (D65) Park School in 2014. Having grown up in Evanston and participated in the PALS program as a middle schooler (a non-profit which helps young adults with Down Syndrome), it was always Heckathorne’s “dream to end up back there.”

Two years later, Heckathorne, who identifies as trans non-binary, decided they could no longer “supress this authentic piece of [themselves] at work” and made a plan of how to explain their identity to staff and students.

In attempting to work with the district, Heckathorne realized that “no one [within D65] really knew what they were doing” because they had never worked with a transgender employee coming out. According to Heckathorne, the principal of Park School had never even met a transgender person before.

Without any district policies or procedures to follow, Heckathorne made their own announcement asking staff and students to use their correct pronouns (they/them), along with a Q&A sheet about gender identity.

“Some people really want to be supportive, and they’re just so afraid of using the language wrong or asking a question that they think is dumb. So I wanted to show that I was available to [have that] conversation,” Heckathorne explains.

Soon after their announcement, a staff member working with Heckathorne expressed that “she was very troubled and had concerns about working with me.” As this harassment continued, Heckathorne realized that because there wasn’t any policy for administrators to reference that ensured safety for transgender/non-binary staff members, “there weren’t strong ways to enforce what I was asking for.”

Heckathorne continued to express their concerns to administrators: “I cannot keep working in a space like this. You need to do something,” Heckathorne would tell them. “I kept asking, and I felt like no one was listening. Or they heard me, but they didn’t care,” Heckathorne explains.

After continued inaction from D65, Heckathorne, along with other members of the Gender and Sexuality Educators Alliance (GSEA), a group created to advocate for LGBTQIA+ employee rights, crafted a week-long LGBTQ+ equity curriculum in the summer of 2019. This curriculum consisted of activities about LGBTQ+ identities that were appropriate for all grade levels. During a conversation with D65 administrators, the GSEA emphasized that they carefully crafted this curriculum as a mandatory experience for all. However, after receiving both verbal and written backlash from parents and educators, D65 administrators decided to allow parents to opt their children out of the curriculum, going against what Heckathorne believed to be an agreement between the GSEA and D65.

According to an article published in the Chicago Tribune in October 2019, an Evanston parent group sent a letter to the D65 school board and administration prior to LGBTQ+ equity week to express their concerns and complaints.

One part of the letter read, “To be clear, we stand with District 65 in affirming that all students should feel safe at school, without fear or threat of disrespect or bullying. We disagree that ‘encouraging our students to feel safe and feel seen [and to] feel valued and capable of growth,’ requires a week-long mandatory LGBTQ+ celebration via lessons that fail to account for the perspectives of all stakeholders.”

Heckathorne was disappointed by the negative reactions of families and D65’s subsequent response.

“We were so optimistic about [the curriculum] that we were really slapped in the face by some pretty intense negative feedback we got about it,” Heckathorne says. “And then [administrators] started to get pushback from families, and then all of a sudden they sort of changed their tune, which we have called them out on.”

Finally, earlier this year, Heckathorne decided to take a leave of absence because of D65’s inaction.

“I let the administration know that it wasn’t safe for me to be at work and that I needed something to change in order for me to come back. I knew that I couldn’t show up and be the teacher [my students] deserved teaching in the environment that I was in,” Heckathorne says.

While taking their leave of absence in September 2019, Heckathorne decided that other people needed to know what was going on, “Not just for my sake, but for other queer people to know that this isn’t acceptable.”

“[The] administration was doing a really good job of keeping this a secret,” Heckathorne explains. “I needed other voices to join me in saying that something has to change and that this district has to do better.”
In order to accomplish this, Heckathorne and a group of D65 parents and teachers rallied at the Sept. 23, 2019, board meeting and demanded a more supportive policy to protect transgender/non-binary identifying staff.

“We thought that [the board meeting] would be a really powerful space to make this known to the public. It was really, really scary, but I needed the story to be out,” Heckathorne says.

Heckathorne was accompanied at the board meeting by Evanston community members and other members of the GSEA. At the Sept. 23, 2019, meeting, members of the GSEA took turns speaking to the board about the importance of inclusion for transgender and non-binary identifying staff and students. The first speaker, Ren’s mother Jennifer Heckathorne, began her statement by giving her name and pronouns before not being able to continue reading her statement.

“[Ren Heckathorne’s harasser] was bringing religion into the workplace, telling the trans individual they should be going to hell. They openly prayed in the classroom, including with the students to ‘save’ this teacher,” the person reading for Jennifer said.

Lisa Levine, a member of the GSEA and parent of a non-binary child, was not present at the meeting, but wrote a letter to the board showing her solidarity. This letter, which was read by another ally at the meeting, emphasized the importance of updated, inclusive D65 policies regarding gender.

Referencing the harassment Ren Heckathorne faced, Levine wrote that “the district has had ample opportunity to remedy the situation and has failed to do so to the point that this talented and highly specialized educator no longer feels safe to return to work.”

On Oct. 1, 2019, Heckathorne returned to Park School, after one of their main harassers was moved from the school. However, “there’s a long way to go,” Heckathorne notes. “I returned, but really because my students needed me. I had to be there for them.”

D65 Response

Since Heckathorne’s coming out as trans non-binary in 2016, there have been ongoing conversations between Heckathorne and D65 regarding the harassment they faced and broader policy changes.

In October 2019, a clause was added to D65’s board policy ensuring safety to LGBTQIA+ identifying staff members. Currently, D65’s board policy section 5:10 states in part that, “The School District shall provide equal employment opportunities to all persons regardless of their race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity whether or not traditionally associated with the person’s designated sex at birth; gender-related identity or expression….”

Additionally, D65 recently expanded their gender support plans to specifically include employees. According to D65 Director of Equity and Family/Community Engagement Joaquin Stephenson, a D65 committee is currently working on these plans as a continuation of the current plan dedicated to supporting gender-expansive students.

Throughout the course of the 2019-2020 school year, Lurie Children’s Hospital will provide training for D65 staff regarding support for gender-expansive students and staff.

“The objectives of the training will be: provide an overview of key terms and concepts related to gender and sexuality, [and] discuss how to talk about gender and sexual diversity with students, parents, and the school community,” stated a letter provided to D65 staff members by Lurie Children’s Hospital, describing the student-focused training. Levine believes D65 is beginning to move in the right direction with some policies and practices, such as the Lurie training.
“I received the training they’re providing from Lurie Children’s Hospital prior to the [LGBTQ+ Equity] week, so I felt super informed,” says Levine.

Later this year, D65 staff members will also receive training from Lurie Children’s Hospital regarding how to support gender-expansive colleagues.

Implications for District 202

At ETHS, distinct supports exist for transgender students, such as all-gender restrooms and locker rooms, and the ability to change one’s pronouns and name in the school system with parental consent.

“There’s different things that the district does to try to honor and recognize and affirm a student’s identity,” sponsor of ETHS’ GSA and biology teacher Bill Farmer says. “[District 202] has tried to be really responsive in terms of making sure that teachers have had some training and communication on issues related to gender identity.”

Senior Grey Miller, who uses they/them pronouns, says that ETHS has created more support systems for transgender students than most places, but that “it’s a pretty low bar.”

However, unlike D65, D202 has had an administrative procedure that prohibits discrimination and provides protection to gender expansive district employees since August 2017.

Currently, District 202’s administrative policy 7:10-AP states that, “Employees who transition on the job can expect the support of management and human resources staff. HR will work with each transitioning employee individually to help ensure the employee’s career, social, and emotional success. Discrimination and harassment of employees on the basis of sex, sexual orientation or gender identity or expression is prohibited within Evanston Township High School District 202.”

Despite this policy, some students still notice a lack of teachers who identify as transgender/nonbinary. Miller explains this by the idea that “school was meant to replicate the current society.”

“I don’t think institutions necessarily want teachers that are trans and non-binary,” Miller says. “That would imply that trans and non-binary people are people that have agency and have power to teach others.”

Moving forward

Currently, Heckathorne and other allies continue to fight for more concrete policies within D65 to combat workplace harassment. Heckathorne is joined by Levine, among others, who feel that the actions of D65 are not sufficient and do not ensure long term safety to LGBTQIA+ identifying staff and students.

“The one thing that still rests so uncomfortably to me is [that] one of the offenders [who harassed Heckathorne] just got moved buildings and got moved to a middle school where kids are in the midst of figuring their identity out,” says Levine. “To me, that just seems so dangerous.”

For Heckathorne, their narrative is individual, yet is also indicative of larger problems in the American education system. Heckathorne discusses “long-running traditions” regarding binary spaces that schools should be questioning, such as dividing students into “boys and girls.” They also emphasize the importance of teachers as the “leaders of the classroom” normalizing pronoun use and queer protagonists in books to make the classroom more inclusive for all students.

“I think we need to be a lot more reflective in practice and not let the answer of ‘well, this is always how we’ve done it’ stop us from sitting and thinking that it doesn’t have to be this way anymore,” Heckathorne says.

The Evanstonian reached out to D65 Superintendents and did not receive a response.