MORTON, Ill. (WMBD) — Parents, students, and community members from several towns across the region protested outside of Morton District 709 High School Thursday evening.
One of the main themes during the protest was to start diversifying the district in the hopes of making it a more welcoming environment for all.
“The real power is with the White, religious men and that’s where all of the power is,” Tamara Woodmancy, a parent in the district, said. “We need diversity in this district it is friends of friends of religious men that keep getting hired and keep getting elected.”
The other themes included addressing homophobia, transphobia, and making the district “safe” for LGBTQ+ students. They yelled chants of anti-hate, anti-bullying, and support for the LGBTQ+ youth.
“To the current students, the LGBTQ+ community, trans students, people of color, it may seem as if you’re alone, but you’re not,” Woodmancy said. “There are so many people that support you.”
“So many kids within the LGBTQ+ community feel alone, consider ending their lives, or they do end their lives,” Woodmancy said. “I want them to know there are so many people all around you, and there’s so much more in this world than the bigoted opinion of the majority around you.”
More than thirty parents and students held signs and gave testimonies describing homophobic treatment in the district. Some told stories of how they were bullied, witnessed bullying, or heard accounts of others being bullied due to their sexuality or appearance.
Some protesters also said the problem lies in the administration.
Many alleged a part-time French teacher, Kim Johnson, and a school board member, Bart Rinkenberger, are causing damage.
The alleged harmful behavior includes Johnson making homophobic, transphobic, misogynistic, and racist comments in the classroom over the years.
WMBD reached out to Johnson several times for comment, she did not respond.
The district’s superintendent Jeff Hill did confirm via e-mail there is an investigation into the allegations against Johnson and due to the privacy of those involved in the investigation, they can’t comment further.
Protesters also accused Rinkenberger of making a transphobic comment underneath a Facebook post that encourages people to defy the governor’s mask mandate.
The comment read “imagine a people so conflicted that they allow a child to decide what gender they want to “be” but won’t allow them to decide to wear a mask or not.”
WMBD also reached out to Rinkenberger for comment. He responded in an e-mail writing “I’ll have a response for you soon. It will be from me… not the district. Thanks for asking.”
Protesters said they want both Johnson and Rinkenberger removed from their positions. One student said the only way to make change is if it starts from the top.
“I don’t see how they can’t preach kids to stop bullying when they are the bully on the school board,” Morton 709 High School Junior, Josie Kneller, said.
She said Rinkenberger’s comment inspired her to speak at Morton’s School Board Tuesday night.
“I want to see people being able to feel safe and be happy within the school and not be fearful of a teacher being rude to them or other students being rude to them because they’re shown by the higher-ups in our community that it’s okay to do this, and it’s not ok,” Kneller said,
WMBD also reached out to school board president Jeff Schmidgall and superintendent Jeff Hill for comment.
Hill e-mailed a statement to WMBD:
“Morton District 709 does not and will not tolerate discrimination or harassment of any kind. While individual board members, administrators and employees do have First Amendment rights to make statements on their own behalf, the position of the school district is only communicated through the Superintendent or Board President.”