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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

When Schools Say ‘All Means All,’ What Do They Really Mean?

By Peter DeWitt — January 27, 2019 5 min read
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Researchers, leaders, and teachers love numbers. Schools are filled with data teams, and data coaches. We take state data and plan interventions around it for students. At the district level or state level, our numbers make their way into newspapers, online and in smaller cities they may even appear on the evening news. At the highest levels, with policymakers and politicians, we explore the numbers to see why our country is not performing at the level of other countries.

There is an exhaustive list of ways we can find our numbers, so I’m here to share some numbers with you.

45, 86, 80, 74, 63, 31...

45- In the United Kingdom, “45% of lesbian, gay, bi and trans pupils are bullied for being LGBT at school (Stonewall. 2017). For those of you who explore numbers, it should be a bit alarming to say the least that almost half of LGBT students surveyed have experienced being bullied at school just for being gay.

86- “86% of LGBT pupils in the U.K. regularly hear derogatory phrases in school.

Sadly, the report states that “45% of LGBT pupils who are bullied for being LGBT never tell anyone about the bullying (Stonewall. 2017).” Why? Many times they don’t believe teachers and leaders will do anything about it.

80- In Australia, 80% of homophobic bullying involving LGBT young people occurs at school and has a profound impact on their well-being and education (Australian Human Rights Campaign). And often, because nothing is done about the bullying, those LGBT students leave school believing that their teachers and leaders do not care about them.

74- In 74 countries, being gay is a criminal offense. (International LGBTI Association). That means that you are considered a criminal if you are gay. Imagine what it’s like to be an LGBT youth in those countries?

  • In 12 of those countries, being gay is punishable by death.
  • In 17 of those countries, I am prohibited from talking about this very topic.

Safeguarding LGBTQ students was the topic of my doctoral research 10 years ago. Can you imagine not being able to talk about your educational research topic, which is a human rights issue, because you might get arrested?

Many people who live in the U.S. have the common misperception that the U.S. is very inclusive. After all, we see so many gay characters on television, and we seem to all have gay friends in our friendship circles or families. However, there are states within the United States where this topic is not invited, either. In fact, I will provide you with some numbers about that.

63- In the U.S., 63% of LGBTQ students report feeling unsafe at school (GLSEN). Why do they feel unsafe? They feel unsafe because they have been bullied and harassed and many teachers or leaders do not do anything about it.

31- There are 31 U.S. states that do not have statewide school bullying and discrimination protections for both sexual orientation and gender identity, though some may have partial protections (Ed Week).

In many schools, leaders and teachers say ‘All Means All.’ They have it printed on school paper, posted on websites. They say ‘All Means All’ because they want all kids to feel welcome, but so many of our minoritized/marginalized populations do not. Our LGBTQ students do not feel as though they are a part of the All Means All’ equation, but they are not the only ones. As I travel internationally, I see that there are indigenous populations that do not feel included as well. LGBTQ students do not feel like they are all a part of the All Means All equation.

I Lost More Than Half My Readers
Many people clicked on this article to read what I meant by ‘All Means All.’ I guarantee that I lost half those readers after they began to read that this blog was about safeguarding LGBT students. Thank you for being the ones who held out, kept reading, and are now wondering what you can do.

In order for students to be academically engaged, they have to feel an emotional connection to school. If they aren’t able to fully be who they are, how can they ever feel an emotional connection to their school? The following are some ways you can help:

  • Acknowledge that LGBTQ students exist in your school. There are times that leaders tell me they don’t have any gay kids in their schools. I have told them that I’m not great with statistics, but it’s statistically impossible to not have gay kids in your school.
  • Create Policies to protect them from being bullied. However, policies are not as good as the paper they are written on if leaders and teachers do not enforce them.
  • Provide Inclusive curriculum, books, and novels. I lost my dad when I was in 5th grade. My teachers never read books that were set in a one-parent household. I often felt like I was on the outside looking in. Many LGBTQ students feel the same way. Unfortunately, many librarians are asked to secretly ban books so they never make it to the shelves in a library.
  • Offer Images such as safe-space stickers so all students know they have a refuge to go to. Safe-space stickers are not just for LGBTQ students. They offer a beacon of light for any student who doesn’t feel safe.
  • Use terms like LGBT or LGBTQ so they actually feel as though you care—language is everything. I understand it’s a bit of an alphabet soup sometimes, so focus on one that all adults can use.

If we say All Means All, shouldn’t we mean it?

45, 86, 80, 74, 63, 31...

Some of this blog was taken from an eight-minute closing keynote Peter DeWitt gave at the ICSEI Conference in Stavanger, Norway, earlier this month. There were six other presenters speaking on topics involving students. The conference held delegates from 45 countries, some of which have anti-LGBT laws that prevent people from speaking out about LGBT issues, and some of the countries have laws that make being LGBT punishable by death.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including School Climate: Leading with Collective Efficacy (Corwin Press. 2017), and Coach It Further: Using the Art of Coaching to Improve School Leadership (Corwin Press. 2018). Connect with him on Twitter.

Images courtesy of Jennifer Smithers Marten.

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.