This post is a part of the conversation around the ASCD Forum “Learning for All = Teaching for All.” To learn more about the forum, go to www.ascd.org/ascdforum.
By Peter DeWitt
When we talk about equity in schools, one minoritized population that often gets left out of the conversation is our LGBTQ students. LGBTQ stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning (or Queer, depending on who you are talking to).
For full disclosure, the LGBTQ community was not a group of students that I thought was having issues in school until I came upon research by the Gay, Lesbian, Straight, Education Network (GLSEN). GLSEN’s research (2009) showed that
- 84.6% of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed.
- 40.1% reported being physically harassed.
- 18.8% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation.
- 72.4% heard homophobic remarks, such as “faggot” or “dyke,” frequently or often at school.
When I read that, I realized that as a school principal, I needed to do more to help safeguard this marginalized population of students. As I made my way through my doctoral research and reached out to school superintendents around New York State, where I reside, for permission to ask teachers to complete surveys, I was taken aback when I was turned down by some of the finest school districts in the state. One superintendent e-mailed me back the word “No.” I decided not to reply to ask her if she was on the fence about the issue.
Six years later, I still feel that the LGBTQ population is often misunderstood. There are more and more transgender students entering into school systems, and schools are ill-prepared to help those students feel safe. To make matters worse, we have states like North Carolina that pass laws that state people have to use the bathrooms for the gender that they were born with—luckily there is backlash from people within and outside the state who believe such a law is discriminatory.
One of the questions that arises when talking about LGBTQ students is “Why do schools have to worry about this issue?” The simple reason is that all of these students—those who experience or understand LGBTQ issues and those who do not agree at all—converge on schools, and teachers and leaders need to be prepared to address everything that comes up in the process.
As a former elementary school principal, I understand that it starts at a young age, with age-appropriate conversations, books, and curriculum that address gender-based issues. In Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students (Corwin, 2012), I highlighted some proactive strategies that can help create inclusive environments for LGBTQ students.
Create a supportive learning environment in your classroom or school. This concept starts from the top down. A school without proper policies and codes of conduct is not supportive. Include all groups in the policies because they deserve an equal opportunity in your school regardless of whether school staff agrees with their lifestyle.
- Educate staff about bullying and LGBTQ issues. Staff may not know anyone who is gay, so they need exposure to the group so they can build awareness on how to help.
- Implement an antibullying program in your school. A quality antibullying program must include staff, students, administration, parents, and the community that surrounds the school. People do not buy into canned programs, but they do buy into philosophies.
- Participate in GLSEN’s No Name Calling Week in your elementary, middle, or high school. Eliminating name calling is a simple idea with a powerful message. Visit www.glsen.org for more details.
- Participate in GLSEN’s Safe Space Campaign. LGBTQ students need to know where the supportive teachers are in the building, and this campaign offers triangles to stick on the door so students can identify those supportive teachers.
- Have teachers, along with hall monitors, stand at classroom doorways during student transition times. Bullying frequently happens in unstructured areas, so to minimize such areas by making sure teachers are present and visible.
- Read literature that includes racial, economic, and sexual diversity in your classroom or school. Find books that have gay characters woven into the storyline. The less diverse your school, the more important these books are to exposing your students to the diversity of the real world.
- Involve your student population in the It Gets Better Campaign. For more information go to www.itgetsbetter.org.
- Empower students to stand up for themselves and for others, and teach students the coping skills to deal with being bullied. We need to try to do something about kids who are being bullied, but we also need them to know we care.
Parents send their children to school to learn, and they expect them to be safe. School leaders and teachers have a responsibility to help all of their students feel included in the school process so they can maximize their potential. It doesn’t mean everyone has to agree, but it does mean that everyone has to feel safe and included in our school systems.
DeWitt, P. (2012). Dignity for all: Safeguarding LGBT students. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). 2009. The 2009 national school climate survey. Retrieved from http://www.glsen.org/learn/research/nscs-archive
Peter DeWitt, EdD, is an independent consultant working with John Hattie as a Visible Learning trainer and Jim Knight as an instructional coaching trainer. He is the author of several books, including School Climate Change: How do I build a positive environment for learning? (ASCD, 2014), which he coauthored with Sean Slade; Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students (Corwin, 2012); and the forthcoming Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (Corwin, 2016). DeWitt will be providing a keynote address on LGBTQ students on May 18 for the Ontario Principal’s Association in Toronto.