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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

State Interventions Can Help Create Inclusive Schools

By Peter DeWitt — September 15, 2011 5 min read
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While the intersections of social class, race, gender, sexuality, and religion vary for each person, their existence and importance within our culture are, for those who do not share membership in the dominant groups, social facts with social consequences" (Sears, 1991, p. 55).

School codes of conduct and board policies are vitally important to the safety of all students. However, they are only beneficial if staff will follow through on enforcing them. Without proper professional development and training, many staff members do not know how to address issues that they see in school. Administration, teachers and staff need proper resources in order to address controversial issues that happen within their school. One type of issue, which sadly is still considered controversial, is protecting LGBT students.

The Hennepin school district in Anoka, Minnesota is facing criticism for their efforts (or lack there of) in dealing with the never-ending issue of bullying (NY Times). In this particular school district, it was bullying toward LGBT students. In addition to bullying, the district has been dealing with a sad slew of suicides. Although this is not the first school district in the U.S. to have issues with LGBT bullying, it is yet another sign that school districts need to do more with this often abused minority population. Contrary to popular belief, these students do not want to be seen as victims. LGBT students would like to be a part of a nurturing and safe environment where they are not forced to be victims.

In order for this issue to be dealt with properly, there must be administrators who are willing to take it on, and staff and community members who will support the administrator during this endeavor. If an administrator or strong staff member does not step up, LGBT students will continue to face hardships in their schools, which can have detrimental effects to their academic performance and self-esteem.

One such school district that is addressing the needs of LGBT students is the Los Angeles Unified School District (Daily News). LA Unified is taking a progressive role by offering safeguards and curriculum that include LGBT issues. This progressive stance will prepare all students for the real world. Unfortunately, LA Unified is the exception not the rule.

Lack of Understanding

During my childhood and young adulthood, gays and lesbians were invisible in my community. But while they were invisible, they certainly were not absent; their presence was just not acknowledged. The behaviors I observed in the adults I loved and looked up to suggested that gays and lesbians were people one whispered about; spoke of in vague, masked terms; or ridiculed, abused, and violated because of who and what they were. The world that formed me and shaped my values did not honor, afford humanity to, or bestow dignity on those who were gay. I grew up in a world where gay, lesbian, and bisexual people were invisible, isolated, powerless, and voiceless (Roper, 2005, p.81).

Unlike LA Unified, many school districts ignore the bullying of LGBT students for a variety of reasons. Sometimes school staff members do not see the actual bullying so they cannot prove it is actually taking place. Other times staff members do not know how to properly address bullying issues regarding LGBT students. In addition, there are school staff members who feel uncomfortable addressing LGBT issues for personal reasons.

Working with LGBT students is not any different from working with heterosexual students. School staff should address the bullying of LGBT students in the same manner that they addess all bullying, which means that name calling needs to be addressed, and students who verbally or physically harm another student based on sexual orientation need to be disciplined in the same manner as any student who physically harms another student.

School districts often site a lack of resources as a barrier in the process of moving forward to protect and understand this population of students. In addition, teachers and administrators often say that they have lacked exposure to members of the LGBT community and do not know how to deal with this population. Unfortunately this lack of exposure that they site as a barrier prevents them from exposing their students to LGBT issues which creates a vicious cycle. Whether this is an excuse or not, it is an area that needs to be addressed. Resources should be made readily accessible to school districts so they can take the initiative to address LGBT issues.

Bullying of LGBT students is just the “tip of the iceberg” for schools. Schools’ systemic issue with LGBT students includes bullying but also includes a lack of safeguards and curriculum that address the needs of LGBT students.

State Interventions
Given the fact that LGBT issues are often ignored, Safeguards and curriculum will not have a place in a school system without help from the individual state education departments. States need to step in and establish laws that force school districts to create school board policies and school codes of conduct that have inclusive language which includes sexual orientation, gender expression, religion and gender.

As much as state interventions do not always play a positive role in school systems, these laws can be very positive because they give students, parents, staff and administrators who care deeply about this topic, the leverage they need to make changes within their schools.

In New York State, the Dignity for All Students Act was established in 2010 which mandates districts to have school board policies and codes of conduct in place that safeguard students based on religion, sexual orientation and gender expression. School systems must have these safeguards in place by July 1st, 2012.

In addition to New York State, Washington State already has an anti-discrimination law in place which was passed in 2010. As of last month, all school districts in Washington State are required to adopt state policy and procedure that expressly prohibit the bullying of students based on sexual orientation and gender expression and identity.

The Washington State Education Department’s School Safety website provides important resources for school districts. Those resources cover safeguards for students who are being bullied, media campaigns such as “It Gets Better”, national LGBT organizations and state-wide LGBT parent groups and organizations. In addition to the other resources available, the School Safety website created a webpage for students in crisis called SOS for Youth. That particular webpage provides students with confidential and immediate access to helplines (School Safety website).

Many people believe that school districts need to move faster where the exposure to LGBT students is concerned. Other groups believe that school districts are moving too quickly and should not expose students to LGBT issues. Regardless of which side of the LGBT issue people finds themselves on, we can all agree that this student population is at risk and needs the assistance of school districts in order to obtain a quality education.

Follow Peter on Twitter. His book entitled Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students will be published by Corwin Press in the spring of 2012.

Roper, Larry D. (2005). The Role of Senior Student Affaris Officers in Supporting LGBT Students: Exploring the Landscape of One's Life, New Directions for Student Services no. 111, pp. 81-88. Sears, J. T. (1991). Helping Students Understand and Accept Sexual Diversity. Educational Leadership , 54-56.

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.