An LGBTQ+ inclusive culture begins in elementary school

Laws aren’t enough to provide a cultural shift in our schools

By Michael Tapia | January | February 2020
During most of my career as an elementary teacher and principal in Title I schools, I was a champion for marginalized students who were English Learners, poor, and/or students of color. Being a Latino, as well as a person who experienced poverty during my elementary school years, provided me with insights and empathy that enhanced my efforts to support my students and families. However, since 2016 — a year after my retirement — I have been involved as an equity advocate for LGBTQ+ students. Mostly with my partner/spouse of 37 years, Steven Bailey (along with several colleagues), we have participated in a number of professional development events sharing our own personal experiences as LGBTQ+ individuals along with supportive strategies and important resources we have discovered along the way. It has been a rewarding journey, to meet other educators in our state who welcome support for their LGBTQ+ students, but are not entirely sure how to obtain or provide it. Along the way, we have learned much about current conditions for these students, the challenges posed by our educational institutions to meet their needs, and the plethora of resources available for support. Though some LGBTQ+ students deal relatively well with the challenges their sexual orientation or gender identity pose, based on recent studies in California, many of these secondary students regularly face discrimination, harassment and bullying in school that adversely affects their education. Only a third of these students always feel safe in the classroom and roughly half have been teased or bullied because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Roughly a third complain they don’t have access to a Gay-straight Alliance on their campus (HRC, 2018). Compared to their non-LGBTQ+ peers, they feel less connected to school, experience lower expectations from staff, earn lower grades, have higher absenteeism, feel less safe at school and use tobacco and alcohol at a higher rate (Choi, et al., 2017).  One last alarming statistic: LGBTQ+ students are five times more likely to consider suicide than their non-LGBTQ+ peers (Bloomfield, et al., 2016). While we have some of the most progressive state laws in the country designed to provide more inclusive public school environments for LGBTQ+ students, the data suggest that there has not been adequate implementation or enforcement of these policies statewide. But laws alone cannot provide the cultural shift necessary for schools to be the welcoming places for all the students that they proudly proclaim in their vision and mission statements. For many LGBTQ+ students, these messages of acceptance and caring are just words. Nationwide, most schools are still very heterosexist – operated under the assumption that everyone is and should be heterosexual. Curricula, texts, and school policies are most often constructed to reflect that heterosexuality is not only the norm but also the only possible option for students (Mayo, 2014). Challenging the status quo is a huge undertaking even in a state as progressive as California. So, with these challenges facing us, where do we begin this cultural shift leading to inclusiveness? Instead of waiting until middle school or high school, this work must begin at the elementary level. The work of changing the culture of the school needs to begin as early as kindergarten and continue through grade 12 (Short, 2017).  At the elementary level, addressing LGBTQ+ issues does not imply explicit sexual conversations will take place, as it would be generally inappropriate and not recommended. However, addressing gender and sexual diversity in the context of gender role expectations and parenting/family relationships is appropriate for young children (Sadowski, 2016). Please keep in mind the following as we explore this topic in elementary settings:
  • Children start to apply stereotypes between the ages of 3 and 5.
  • Elementary school students understand that stereotypes lead to discrimination.
  • If bias is not interrupted, students believe it is accepted.
  • By age 8 and 9, children can help peers reduce prejudice.
By addressing family diversity, gender stereotypes and the harmful effects of bullying, teaching children about the specific kinds of language and behaviors that are hurtful is necessary not only to make schools welcoming but also to circumvent the escalation of bias and sexuality-based harassment that continues into middle and high school (Sadowski, 2016).
Education researcher Elizabeth Meyer tells us that gender roles are taught at school. When children enter preschool and kindergarten, they are learning much about gender codes and what is expected of them if they are a boy or a girl. To “help students feel valued in all their gender diversity,” Meyer recommends the following practices in schools (Sadowski, 2016):
  • When teaching about careers, be sure to have images and role models that show men and women in a variety of career roles.
  • Be sure your class library and play centers include books and toys for all interests that aren’t labeled or separated by gender.
  • Avoid having your students line up by sex; try using other organizing categories such as first name, last name, or birth month.
  • When talking about families and home life, be sure to talk about the various roles and responsibilities that parents may have. Avoid talking about “what mommies do” and “daddies do” – especially since many students may have only one parent or may be living with another caregiver [or they may have same sex parents].
  • When choosing stories to read in class, make sure you have a wide selection of stories of girls and boys as main characters that show girls as leaders and boys as caring and supportive friends.
  • When choosing diverse representations of gender in stories and images, pay attention to different racial and ethnic backgrounds.
If you need more inclusive literature for your school and classroom libraries that includes LGBTQ+ representation and diverse gender roles, Welcoming Schools, a program of the Human Rights Campaign, provides multiple lists appropriate for K-6/8 on its website. Some of the recommended titles include lesson plans based on the Common Core ELA Standards. In addition, on the American Library Association’s website, the Rainbow List and Rainbow List Top Ten provide titles for grades K-12. As more schools implement Senate Bill 48, also known as the FAIR Act, these literature resources may be very helpful as teachers develop lessons aimed at providing more inclusive representation of a diverse student body and parents.

When choosing stories to read in class, make sure you have a wide selection of stories of girls and boys as main characters that show girls as leaders and boys as caring and supportive friends.
Much like district vision/mission statements, mottos, and guiding principles, site vision/mission statements along with schoolwide behavioral expectations can also be positive tools for cultural proficiency at the elementary level. When I became an elementary principal in 2006, the school to which I was assigned was a Title I school that had long before implemented a behavioral expectation program known as Lesson One. Beyond the training the entire staff received, a critical component of this support system was a schoolwide daily student pledge of positive behaviors recited after the Pledge of Allegiance. The program was very effective, gaining the attention of many first-time visitors to the school. A number of years later, when I was assigned as principal of another school in the district, I guided my student council to create a similar pledge:  My pledge for achievement
  • I will have a positive attitude.
  • I will use my self-control at all times.
  • I will respect the diversity of others.
  • I will treat others the way I would like to be treated.
  • I will be the best that I can be.
The pledge was on display in every classroom, and throughout other campus locations including the front office as well as my own (and in two languages, as we were predominantly a dual immersion school). Students at each grade level were assisted in understanding the meaning of the pledge statements and were encouraged to give examples of the ways they met the pledge expectations. When I had disciplinary conferences with students, they were usually able to cite the pledge expectations they had challenges meeting. For many teachers, the pledge served as the classroom behavioral expectations, thus eliminating the need for additional ones. The pledge was also aligned with the tenets of our district’s mission/vision statements and guiding principles. Though there were few incidents specifically related to LGBTQ+ issues during my tenure as principal, when they did arise, the pledge helped me reinforce the rationale for the students’ referral as we reviewed it. As mentioned previously, laws alone cannot change a school culture. However, if we look at some of the California education laws enacted, positive change that benefits both LGBTQ+ and non-LGBTQ+ students is possible:
  • The FAIR Act (SB 48), if properly implemented, provides all students an opportunity to learn about LGBTQ+ Americans (and other marginalized groups) in K-12 social science instruction.  
  • The School Success and Opportunity Act (AB 1266) requires students be permitted to participate in school activities and use facilities consistent with their gender identity. 
  • California Healthy Youth Act (AB 329) not only requires that students in grades 7-12 receive comprehensive sexual health education and HIV prevention education, but also requires that health education be inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • Seth’s Law (AB 9) adds protection for students who are bullied because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender-expression in addition to race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, disability and religion.
  • Suicide Prevention Policies in Schools (AB 2246) requires districts to adopt suicide prevention policies for grades 7-12 that address the needs of LGBTQ+ youth and other high-risk groups.
All of these laws, if appropriately implemented, have the potential to improve conditions, and, ultimately, contribute to a cultural shift for our LGBTQ+ students. In particular, the FAIR Act resonates with me. As a student in the elementary grades, all of the people depicted in my Ginn readers were always white; none were brown like me (or black or Asian like some of my peers). Certainly, as a middle schooler and later, a high school student struggling with my sexuality (and repressing it), it would have been nice to see LGBTQ+ people portrayed positively in the curriculum as SB 48 has the potential to do. When you think of it, the FAIR Act provides for an engaging curriculum that serves as both a mirror and a window for our students; they not only learn more about themselves, but gain knowledge and understanding of others as well.  As previously mentioned, I have discovered some great resources for educators seeking to develop positive cultural shifts leading to more inclusive experiences for all students including LGBTQ+. For a comprehensive list of relevant books, educational magazine articles, and organizations/websites, please visit the LGBTQ Leaders’ Network, developed by my partner, Steven, on ACSA’s website. There are many organizations that provide a variety of services, programs, and resources that support the LGBTQ+ community (and students in particular). Some of what I consider to be among the most helpful ones are provided below in The Baker’s Dozen: Resources  American Civil Liberties Union of California, AB 9: Seth’s Law - New Tools to Prevent Bullying in California Schools, www.acluca.org  American Library Association (2019), 2019 Rainbow Book List, www.glbtrt.org   Bloomfield, Veronica E. and Marni E. Fisher, Editors, (2016), LGBTQ Voices in Education, Changing the Culture of Schooling, Routledge California Department of Education, Comprehensive Sexual Health & HIV/AIDS Instruction, www.cde.org  California Department of Education, Frequently Asked Questions –School Success and Opportunity Act (Assembly Bill 1266), www.cde.org  California Department of Education, Frequently Asked Questions: Senate Bill 48, www.cde.org California Department of Education, Youth Suicide Prevention, www.cde.org  Choi, Soon Kyu, Laura Baams and Blanca D. M. Wilson (2017), LGBTQ Youth: Differences Across the State, www.williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu  Human Rights Campaign/HRC (2018), California LGBTQ Youth Report, www.hrc.org  LGBTQ Leaders’ Network, ACSA, www.acsa.org, Region 13, Diversity Counts or https://www.acsaregion13.org/apps/pages/index.jsp?uREC_ID=427767&type=d&pREC_ID=933487)  Sadowski, Michael (2016), Safe Is Not Enough - Better Schools For LGBTQ Students, Harvard Education Press Short, Donn (2017), Am I Safe Here? LGBTQ Teens and Bullying In Schools, On Point Press Welcoming Schools, Key Insights From the Research On Reducing Prejudice and Bias In Children (With Detail), www.welcomingschools.org  Welcoming Schools, Great Diverse Books for Your School, Library or Home, www.welcomingschools.org/resources/books

Michael Tapia is a retired principal of Montalvo Arts Academy in the Ventura USD.

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