Increasing your LGBTQ IQ

Talking with your students is crucial

By Rob Darrow | January | February 2020
Ronin Shimizu (pronouns: he, him, his) entered a California school in kindergarten as a happy student eager to learn. He enjoyed being creative – so creative that he liked making his own clothes. When he got into fourth and fifth grade, he became part of the cheerleading squad, which he loved. At that time, he began having to endure ongoing bullying and teasing remarks such as “that’s so gay,” “girly,” and “fag.” His parents met with school officials and filed formal complaints to address the bullying. After some interventions, Ronin was moved to a different school in order to help reduce the bullying. Despite the interventions, the bullying continued and by seventh grade, he was moved to the independent study program, which limited his interaction with other students. Ronin reported that he woke up every day worried about who may pick on him. Sadly, in December of his seventh grade year, Ronin took his life. The headline in the local newspaper reported, “12-year-old committed suicide after being bullied for being a cheerleader.”  The loss of a child is devastating for any family and for the school community. Knowing how to respond and to heal from a student suicide takes time for any family and community. Data from the California Healthy Kids Survey (2017) indicates that 45 percent of LGBT-identified students seriously considered suicide in the past 12 months and that 43 percent of LGBT- identified students were harassed or bullied because they were gay, lesbian or perceived to be by others. What are the strategies that school administrators can utilize to better understand the LGBTQ community and minimize bullying and harassment?  The Santa Cruz County Office of Education began to discuss these topics by implementing an LGBTQ Task Force three years ago, which is composed of representatives from most school districts in the area and chaired by the county superintendent and a representative of the Safe Schools Project. The task force meets quarterly and develops resource actions based on the topics brought by the district representatives. Over the years, the task force has worked on common policies such as transgender student transition plans, examined CHKS data aggregated by LGBT students, and developed an LGBTQ school climate index as part of a Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County Diversity Partnership grant.  The most captivating activity the task force holds is hosting its yearly student panel. Students from various school districts who are part of the LGBT community – usually 6-8 students from local high schools –  serve as the panel members. The one-hour panel discussion begins with students sharing their stories and what makes them feel safe at their schools. Inevitably a few students share that they are out at school and with their friends, but not at home with their families. They also share what helps them to feel safer on their campuses and what is taught regarding LGBTQ topics in their classrooms (California state law mandates the teaching of LGBTQ history and inclusive sex education). The panel presentation is followed by students and adults breaking off into tables to talk about the critical issues surfaced by the task force and suggest possible solutions. The task force then analyzes what students have shared and, based on this input, determines which topics to focus on during future meetings. The yearly student panel also serves as an anecdotal assessment of how well schools are doing in creating safer and more inclusive campuses.  Some of the student comments and recommendations are as follows:
  • Ignorance is not a good excuse – there should be ongoing education for all.
  • Staff needs to know how to handle various situations (e.g. slurs) regarding LGBTQ youth and should have education about that.
  • Use pronouns and/or ask students which pronouns they use.
  • Use more inclusive language in the school and classroom. 
  • Queer people in history exist.
  • Establish a culture of respect throughout the school and in every classroom.
Administrators in every school can convene meetings of LGBTQ families and students – whether a formal panel as part of a faculty meeting or a small group meeting with the principal. Ask these questions, listen to their answers and then take action: 
  • What is your name, pronouns and one story about something that makes you feel happy, safe and supported at your school? 
  • What would you like to see at your school that would make you feel safer? 
  • As you think about the classes you take – such as English, history, health – what LGBTQ topics are discussed in your classes? 
  • What progress have you seen over time in the climate of your school regarding LGBTQ students?
Administrators in every school can convene meetings of LGBTQ families and students – whether a formal panel as part of a faculty meeting or a small group meeting with the principal.
Santa Cruz County Superintendent Dr. Faris Sabbah states, “All students of every identity, sexual orientation, race, religion, and gender deserve a safe place to learn and grow. For students who have historically been marginalized and made to feel unsafe, this is even more important.” 
The vision of the County Office of Education is for Santa Cruz County to be a model of safe and inclusive schools for all students and families — and especially for LGBTQ students. The research is clear: when students feel safe, supported and included in school, their learning increases, their engagement increases and more students graduate from high school who are college and career ready.  To increase your understanding of LGBTQ families in your schools, make your school climate safer and more inclusive, and reduce bullying among students, talk with your LGBTQ students.  Resources  DePedro, Kris (2019). California Healthy Kids Survey (2015-2017). Responses from students in 7th, 9th and 11th grades. www.chapman.edu/education/research/health-and-safety.aspx Santa Cruz County Office of Education. “Supporting the safety of LGBTQ students and families.” www.santacruzcoe.org

Dr. Rob Darrow is an Educational Consultant specializing in LGBTQ topics related to schools and school districts. He is the Director of Professional Learning for the Safe Schools Project in Santa Cruz County. 

© 2020 Association of California School Administrators

Association of California School Administrators