Within weeks of learning they’d won a $10,000 grant, students who are part of the Gender and Sexuality Alliance at E.C. Glass High School in Lynchburg, Va., got some bad news. The school board, the students learned, was rejecting the money they’d won to build a safe space, or quiet room, for all students.
In a 7-2 vote, the Lynchburg school board voted to reject the funding, raising objections to the source of the grant—the It Gets Better Project, an advocacy group for LGBTQ+ youth.
“The issue of LGBTQ+ is very contentious nationwide, and in our own community,” Martin Day, the vice chairman of the board told Education Week this month. “The board was unanimously in favor of having this room, but in a way that was neutral in terms of sexuality.” He added that the board is exploring alternate ways to fund the project from within the community.
It was a striking lesson on the limits of “student voice” in public schools.
“The question isn’t, how do we get students to share their voice, but how do we get adults to listen to students’ voices?” said Adam F.C. Fletcher, an educational consultant and founder of SoundOut, an Olympia, Wash.-based organization working with K-12 schools to promote student voice.
In Lynchburg’s case, the school board vote came after the superintendent recommended approval of the grant, according to district spokesperson Austin Journey, who stated that the district would not be making faculty advisers of the school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance available for comment. In a statement released to a local news outlet before the board’s vote, the school system had said: “We at Lynchburg City Schools are excited to recently learn that the student-led Gender & Sexuality Alliance organization at E. C. Glass High School has been named a recipient of the 2023 “50 States, 50 Grants, 5000 Voices” grant project,” adding that the high school administrators “look forward” to collaborating with the club to support activities and programs “that align with school board policies.”
But in the greater Lynchburg community, home to Liberty University, the well-known evangelical liberal arts school, some citizens objected. At a November school board meeting following the announcement of the student-earned grant, Lynchburg resident Greg Barry, grandparent and guardian of a student at the high school, voiced his disapproval.
“Let me be very clear,” said Barry, whose comments were captured on YouTube). “The LGBTQ agenda in schools is about indoctrination and grooming our children into an evil and wicked lifestyle.”
During the meeting, students spoke out in support for the grant and expressed disappointment at the school board’s reaction. Education Week was unable to reach them later for comment.
The board’s vote comes as the concept of “student voice” has been gaining traction across the nation. Some districts and schools are looking to give students more say in how their schools are run, through superintendent advisory boards, student councils, or even a seat on a local school board, and that often means listening to and acting on student preferences, interests, and perspectives.
Virginia is among the majority of states that don’t allow students to serve as voting members of their local school boards. Twenty-three states have no student members on their boards; 20 have non-voting student members; and six states allow students to be voting members of their boards, at least on some issues, according to 2022 data from the National Association of State Boards of Education, which has supported student-voice efforts.
The significance of student voice
It also comes in an era of contentious school board meetings, sometimes involving debates over the rights of LGBTQ students and staff. During an 18-month period ending in late 2022, 59 people were arrested or charged subsequent to disputes originating during school board meetings, according to ProPublica. But typically, disapproval expressed at school board meetings is generally directed at school and district officials—not students.
The concept of “student voice” is more than simply a “feel good” notion, according to recent research.
When students believe that schools are responsive to their ideas, they’re more likely to have higher grade point averages and better school attendance, according to research that includes a 2018-19 survey of 12,000 9th-grade students in Chicago led by Joseph Kahne, a professor of education policy and co-director of the Civic Engagement Research Group at University of California Riverside.
While all students benefit from having a more direct role in shaping their experiences at school, incidents such as the one at Lynchburg serve as a reminder that the need is particularly acute for historically marginalized youth, advocates say. In a 2022 survey co-conducted by the Center for American Progress, 19 percent of LGBTQ+ adult respondents reported having experienced discrimination at school, compared to 9 percent of non-LGBTQ+ adult respondents. This percentage was higher for LGBTQ+ people of color and LGBTQ+ people with disabilities, according to Cait Smith, director, LGBTQ+ policy at the center. LGBTQ+ students also report experiencing high rates of bullying.
“It’s incredibly important for LGBTQ+ young people to feel safe, affirmed, and accepted,” Smith wrote in an email. “In the past year, over 400 bills targeting LGBTQ+ youth were considered across the country—accounting for over 60 percent of all anti-LGBTQ+ bills introduced in the same time span.”
When students voices go unheard
Fletcher, the student advocate and educational consultant, warned that districts that exclude students from having a voice will eventually face backlash that, he said, “is going to come like a bag of bricks.”
Students who feel their voices have been silenced are far less likely to be invested long-term in the school community, which is important to its overall health, Fletcher said. “Why would they want to go to a game [at their alma mater] 10 years from now?” he said of current students who feel a lack of investment, and voice, in their high schools.
Pockets of progress
Fletcher noted, however, that adults are listening to students elsewhere and investing heavily in efforts to enhance student voice. He pointed to Boston Public Schools, which supports the Boston Student Advisory Council, a citywide body of student leaders that allows students a voice in several ways. Student efforts associated with the council have helped drive wide-reaching district policies on important issues including student cellphone use during the school day, noted Fletcher.
Other advocates for student voice express optimism about the larger movement’s direction, too. “I think we’ve made a lot of progress over the years in thinking about how we involve youth in decisionmaking,” said Samantha Holquist, senior research scientist at Child Trends, a research organization serving youth and families. “A lot of schools are interested in it; they’re trying to figure it out.”
Yet, while many school districts she’s partnered with express a desire to support student voice, not all are sure how to enact it. “They have questions like: How do we do it effectively?” said Holquist. “How do we hear from students who the system’s not working for? How do we prioritize their voices?”
Some districts are finding creative ways to make students’ voices heard, said Holquist. The Washoe county school district in Nevada, which has a history of creating opportunities for students to play an active role in decisions related to their learning, has, for instance, hired student voice professionals to partner with its schools to provide training on how to elevate student voice within a school community. She said she’s also seeing other districts hire more staff dedicated to student voice, as well as growing numbers of student advisory boards within their school boards.
Creating concrete avenues for student voices to be heard is critical, but so too is adult support in the process, Holquist said. “It’s about having adult allies who can help students not only celebrate their wins,” she said, “but also help them navigate through the challenges of not getting the goal they wanted.”