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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Do Schools Encourage Diversity or Stifle It?

By Peter DeWitt — November 30, 2012 5 min read
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Schools need to be more proactive and less reactive.

Educators all have a reason they entered into the profession. Perhaps they had a teacher who inspired them, or quite the opposite, they weren’t treated very well when they were in school and want to create a better climate for students. Educators all have an issue that is close to their hearts that they devote their time to change and mine is safeguarding marginalized populations which include LGBT students.

As school administrators we know that all students, gay or straight, should be able to go to school and feel safe. Parents send their children to school to learn, they expect them to be safe. They don’t say to themselves, “Well, I have a gay son so it’s ok that he’s going to get called derogatory names throughout the day or fear to walk down the hallway alone because another student with insecurities or anger issues may abuse them.”

Students of racial, academic or economic diversity as well as students who are in the LGBT community should be allowed to enter the same halls and receive a great education. Diversity, of any kind, should be encouraged but in many schools it is not. And in many of those schools LGBT students are abused or harassed by their peers.

In a 2011 Gay, Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN) study, they found that, “Despite signs of progress, the survey found that the majority of LGBT students are faced with many obstacles in school affecting their academic performance and personal well-being. Results indicated that 8 out of 10 LGBT students (81.9%) experienced harassment at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation, three fifths (63.5%) felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation and nearly a third (29.8%) skipped a day of school in the past month because of safety concerns” (Kosciw).

Do We Really Like Different?
Many people don’t like...different. They like their lives in neatly wrapped boxes and getting a new haircut is a walk on the wild side. Too often, they don’t take the time to get to know other people or understand different perspectives. Too many people surround themselves with like-minded friends who share their same view on politics or societal issues. They get offended when others disagree with their points of view.

As educators we need to take more time to understand where our students are coming from so we can better meet their needs. In our education courses we learned about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and felt a deep need to help every student reach their potential. However, somewhere along the way that deep need got lost.

Perhaps life got busy or they began working for an unsupportive administrator or their own personal biases got in the way but educators still expect their students to come to them more than they believe they should go to students. Teachers and administrators wait until a problem exists before they do something about it. If they don’t hear about a problem, everything must be alright even though deep inside they know it’s not. Schools need to be more proactive and less reactive.

Too often there are students who are lost and need some support in order to really move on and contribute to society.

“8 out of 10 LGBT Students Experience Harassment, But School-Based Resources and Supports Are Making a Difference” (GLSEN).

In February there is a conference taking place in San Diego sponsored by the Center for Excellence in School Counseling and Leadership (CESCaL). It is an educator conference focused on working with LGBTQ students. I know what you’re thinking. What’s with the acronym? Why all the letters? Do we always have to be so politically correct? First and foremost, LGBTQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and questioning. The conference supports all of those marginalized groups and even though their needs are different, there is one important thread that holds them together. These groups are often ignored or abused in schools.

Vinnie Pompei is the conference chair and it’s his second year in the role. He says,

“This conference provides a One-Stop-Shop for educators who want to gather the best research based educational practices and resources on LGBTQ youth. As soon as attendees arrive, they are greeted with gift bags filled with contents pertaining to working with LGBTQ students. Next, the exhibitors will be ready to discuss best-practices and hand out complimentary resources to help guide attendees in creating a positive change for their students.

In addition, presenters will bring resources for those that attend their sessions while sharing just how effective they can be used to improve school climate. Lastly, several book authors and nationally known scholars will present sessions and make their products available.”

For full disclosure I am presenting at the conference in both a presentation on safeguarding LGBT Students from an administrator’s perspective, and sitting on two-person roundtable with Denise Wilkinson, the President of the National Association of Secondary School Principals to discuss creating safe, welcoming and inclusive schools for K-12 students.

Pompei says, “CESCaL is an educational non-profit that presents the only national educator (K-12) conference focused specifically on LGBTQ youth. The conference is sponsored by national educational associations, national LGBTQ advocacy organizations as well as several national corporations who also participate in the conference. In fact, even federal agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will present featured sessions for educators.”

In the End
Vincent Pompei sums it up best when he says, “

We hope that educators will learn the attitudes, knowledge and skills necessary to better advocate for LGBTQ youth and to transform their districts into safe, welcoming and inclusive places for all students to learn and thrive.

In year’s past, attendees leave the conference amazingly empowered, have new found friends, and expert contacts to help guide them along their journey as change agents. In fact, based on Pre/Post conference surveys, attendees are making a tremendous impact on the lives of their students.”

Last year’s conference sold out with more than 500 K-12 educators attending from 29 states. Unfortunately many interested attendees were turned away. It is highly encouraged to register soon, taking advantage of Early Bird pricing, which expires on December 15th. Registration can be done directly on the conference website (www.lgbtqia2013.org) or by completing the Conference Registration Brochure.

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2012 Conference Impact Report

Peter is the author of Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students (Corwin Press).

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.