Recently we published a blog addressing educator reactions to the presence of transgender children in elementary schools. In that piece we posited that school districts could reduce educator anxiety about supporting and accommodating transgender students if they proactively implemented policies directly addressing the needs of transgender students. We also called for schools to critically reflect on the ways their formal and informal curriculum assumes that all people fall into binary gender categories. Our purpose for this recommendation is to identify opportunities within the curriculum to begin challenging students' (and adults') taken-for-granted beliefs about the "naturalness" of binary gender and heterosexuality. Breaking down these beliefs is key to creating schools where diverse sexual and gender identities are affirmed, not marginalized. Since then we have received a) questions about the role of policy in creating inclusive schools, and b) requests for more specific information about our vision for proactive policies and practices. Based on our research and policy work in schools, this is a response to those questions.
We strongly believe that the purpose of school policy need not and should not be limited to defining a school district's legal obligations. Policy has the potential to establish clear expectations and provide an organizational framework for maintaining a respectful and equitable school environment. Therefore, we recommend a "best practices" approach to school policy that reflects the school district's intent to uphold the safety and dignity of every student. This may require positions and policies that go beyond what is specified in legal code and may also limit the reach of what is legal. (For example, in many states, strip searches and corporeal punishment of students are "legal." However such actions are counter to the aim of creating respectful school communities, and school policy can lay out practices and expectations that do not utilize these measures.)
It is our belief that policy should not only reflect school responsibilities as defined by local, state, and federal law but also proactively address the needs of marginalized students who have historically been underserved by education law. Research consistently confirms that LGBTQ students are particularly vulnerable in the school environment, and we recommend culturally competent policies that specifically aim to provide a framework for creating a safe and affirming environment for these students. In some states LGBTQ students are not expressly protected in anti-bullying statutes. In many states across the country, laws protecting the rights of LGBTQ people are in various states of passage and implementation (such as marriage rights and nondiscrimination protections). Additionally, lawsuits against school districts for failing to protect the rights of LGBTQ students are continuing to work through the judicial system. Schools can ill afford to wait for legal precedent to define their responsibility to this group of students, and policy that reflects best practice should be constructed so that the best interest of LGBTQ students and the children of LGBTQ families are inscribed in the policy, potentially beyond what the law in that state requires.
Because our work mostly occurs in New York, our policy recommendations reflect the principles of the new Dignity for All Students Act (DASA). However, DASA's focus on education (rather than punitive action) and recognition of both sexual orientation and gender identity make it a model that schools in other states can feel comfortable following. DASA is a progressive way of thinking about addressing violence and discrimination in schools. First, it mandates a proactive approach to these issues, rather than one that is reactive to violence as it occurs. Second, DASA provides crucial protections for all public school students, but it is particularly important for stigmatized students, who are more likely to skip school and engage in high-risk behaviors. Third, DASA requires establishing a level of respect within the school for all students, and compliance calls for a broader and deeper approach than that afforded through anti-harassment, anti-bullying, or anti-discrimination policy alone. This includes encouraging curricular inclusion of LGBTQ experiences and identities in supporting students' understanding of difference and requiring teacher training that supports a proactive approach in their efforts to create supportive classroom environments for LGBTQ students, as well as for student-support professionals' awareness of and sensitivity to the experiences of LGBTQ students -- calling on staff to use counseling methods that do not further marginalize and distance students based upon identity. These steps get closer to the goal of establishing an institutional structure designed to be supportive of all student identities, including LGBTQ students, the children of LGBTQ families, and youth who are gender-nonconforming.
Our "best practices" approach to designing LGBTQ-culturally competent policies relies on education research and understanding schools as social and institutional spaces. Such an approach includes anti-discrimination, anti-harassment, and anti-bullying policies, but it is broader than protecting the physical and emotional safety of victimized students and looks at schools as social systems where not all student contributions are visibly valued. We recommend a policy strategy that allows platforms for contributions of all students to be valued in the school community. Beyond curricular inclusion, this would include diversifying students' avenues for earning recognition or prestige in the school environment. This is an important step, because schools traditionally reward idealized performances of traditional gender and heterosexuality in very visible ways (i.e., athletic events, homecoming traditions, prom courts), while other kinds of success -- arts, academics -- are much less likely to be ceremoniously recognized. What follows is a list of elements we address when we analyze and write school policy and that we believe are the initial necessary steps toward creating affirming and respectful school environments for LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming students and the children of LGBTQ families:
- Clear, consistent, and comprehensive anti-discrimination, anti-bullying, and anti-harassment policies naming LGBTQ students and families as protected categories.
Our policy recommendations provide more detailed guidelines for professional development goals, because we believe that thoughtfully educating school personnel is key to addressing issues of student marginalization in schools:
- Provide a more complicated picture of how aggression "works" in the school environment, one that includes understanding of the social function of aggression in the school environment, and recognition of the microaggressions that are constantly occurring in the social culture of school.
Finally, we recommend that all schools adopt policies that specifically speak to the needs of transgender students, whether or not they are aware of transgender students in their school.
- Dress code should not prohibit students from choosing to dress in accordance with their gender identity, regardless of real or perceived biological sex. Regulations on what constitutes "appropriate" clothing coverage of the body should apply to all students. All acceptable items of clothing, bodily adornment (e.g., jewelry), and personal style (e.g., hair length) should be allowed for all students.
Additionally, strong enforcement of sexual harassment and Title IX policies can provide further support for LGBTQ students.
Ultimately, our hope is for schools to think broadly and creatively about the kinds of institutional changes that can be implemented in efforts to create school cultures that affirm all identities. Strong, clear, consistent anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies are essential to begin the work of creating supportive school environments for LGBTQ students. Beyond the dissemination and enforcement of these policies, creating respectful schools requires education of teachers, staff, and students on difference, diversity, and student-targeting behaviors. It also requires an institutional effort to examine the ways in which the school reproduces privilege and social power for students who are traditionally gendered and heterosexual, and a thoughtful consideration of ways to provide recognition to students who are not.
Note: These policy recommendations should be cited as: Payne & Smith, 2011/2012. LGBTQ School Policy Recommendations. The Queering Education Research Institute (QuERI), www.queeringeducation.org.
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