While Chicago’s schools have been in the spotlight throughout the year due to school closings, consolidations and budget cuts, the district can add one more item to the list of issues.
Members of Gender Justice United for Societal Transformation, or Gender JUST, an organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students gathered with parents and teachers in front of CPS headquarters, 125 S. Clark St., on April 13 to demand a grievance process for students.
“Right now we are asking for a grievance process like a misconduct report for students to fill out if faculty or staff has harassed them,” said Ahkia Daniels, a 20-year-old former student from South Shore High School.
Dozens of students spoke into a megaphone and told stories of being harassed or feeling alienated by different teachers for their sexual orientation.
“I joined [the organization] because I liked what they were standing for. I went to a Chicago Public School and it was horrible,” said Fredrick Reid, who graduated from Hirsch Metropolitan High School in 2008. “We are here for all the students that do not get to have a voice in CPS.”
Chicago Public Schools stated bullying on any level is unacceptable and there is an anti-bullying policy in the student code of conduct book given to students at the beginning of the academic year.
The conduct book states: “School staff shall identify and stop bullying behavior and refer perpetrators for appropriate discipline in accordance with this Student Code of Conduct.”
The bullying statement also addresses the fact that bullying may focus on characteristics such as race, disability, religion, national origin, sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.
“[Being bullied] by a student is one thing, but if a teacher talks bad about you—a teacher, my mentor—it makes you feel like nothing,” Daniels said.
According to CPS, students are required to read the conduct book and have a parent or guardian sign the book acknowledging they have read the material.
Sam Finkelstein, youth organization leader for Gender JUST, said the organization is attempting to address the issues of bullying through restorative justice rather than school policies.
“We do not promote any policy that would be based on punishment that could result in expulsion or suspension or incarceration,” Finkelstein said.
Besides a grievance process, students are asking CPS to establish a “Safe and Affirming Education Campaign,” according to Gender JUST.
Some of the items Gender JUST is requesting in their campaign demands are training for CPS staff on LGBTQ issues, a holistic and comprehensive sex education that is not necessarily framed for a heterosexual relationship and a reevaluation of the Renaissance 2010 policy, which included this year’s school closings and staff changes.
Daniels said some bullying incidents have been very severe.
“There have been students who have dropped out and even committed suicide,” Daniels said.
In response to the protest, CPS said it has met with Gender JUST several times and listened carefully to their concerns. Last June, Gender JUST held a public forum at Lozano Public Library, 1805 S. Loomis St., in which CPS CEO Ron Huberman attended.
But according to Finkelstein, the months of meetings were not enough.
“We decided to step back and build some power and create some energy in the city,” Finkelstein said. “Yesterday was the first of that. There is going to be a series of actions before we go back to the table with them to discuss these issues.”
CPS said Gender JUST raises important issues that need to be addressed in a thoughtful and respectful manner.
“We will not quit until someone hears us,” Reid said.