How schools support students’ gender expression rights - AZEdNews
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How schools support students’ gender expression rights


Arizona State University Students Walk Down Palm Walk On The Tempe Campus On The First Day Of Class Aug. 16. Photo By Marcus Chormicle/ASU Now

Some Arizona school districts are discussing developing policies to support students’ gender identity and expression rights in the wake of legislation to limit LGBTQIA+ students’ privacy, protections, and participation in sports.

Steps taken by teachers, administrators, and school board members help provide safe and inclusive school learning environments that support all students so they can succeed, and a lot of progress has been made in this area, said Jenni Abbott-Bayardi, who currently serves on the Washington Elementary School District Governing Board.

“It has to be a conscious decision to be supportive. It just doesn’t happen naturally for schools, teachers, kids, staff, and administrators to be supportive of kids in the LGBTQ+ community and kids coming out or trying to figure out what’s going on along the way for them,” said Abbott-Bayardi, who attended schools in the district and volunteered at schools in the district her children attended as an out lesbian mother.

Video by Jade Frazier/ASBA: Pride Month interview with Jenni Abbott-Bayardi

Why school culture helps students

Students benefit from schools that provide comprehensive anti-harassment and anti-bullying policies, a safe space where students can receive support as needed, ongoing teacher training and resources on LGBTQIA+ issues and how to discuss topics in developmentally appropriate ways, connections with community support and resources for students and families including health services, age-appropriate student clubs like gay-straight alliances and inclusion in standards-based learning materials of relevant LGBTQIA+ leaders and events.

“Dealing with any kind of harassment or bullying or what have you right away and not tolerating it. I think that sets the tone for how inclusive the classroom will be for kids,” Abbott-Bayardi said.

Creating that positive school culture and climate supports all students, including LGBTQIA+ students by reducing verbal and physical harassment, assault, fear, and stress that can lead to anxiety, depression, and suicide, according to “Most State Policies That Address LGBTQ+ Students in Schools Are Affirming, Despite Recent Trends Toward Exclusion” published March 22, 2022 in Child Trends.

“When somebody is made to feel that they have to hide who they are, they cannot be all that they were created to be,” Abbott-Bayardi said. “There’s so much energy that goes into hiding and being afraid. That fear paralyzes people.”

That impacts students’ ability to learn and get along with each other, Abbott-Bayardi said.

“They won’t be able to learn math. They won’t be able to play nice at recess, because there’s so much fear and shame that is not theirs, that they should not have any of that, but it’s put on them and they just can’t develop into who they are and that affects academics,” Abbott-Bayardi said.

Negative stressors like these impact all students, but students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, nonbinary, or who identify in other ways are more likely to have these adverse experiences, which may lead to missing more days of school, developing anxiety and depression, having lower educational aspirations for after high school, and dropping out, according to Youth.gov.

Some of those adverse experiences are detailed in the 2019 School Climate for LGBTQ Students in Arizona, the latest report from GLSEN, an organization founded by teachers in 1990 and dedicated to protecting LGBTQ rights , conducting research, and developing evidence-based solutions in K-12 schools. The Arizona snapshot shows that 92% of LGBTQ students in Arizona regularly heard gay used in a negative way at school, 79% hear other homophobic remarks, 76% heard negative remarks about gender expression and 73% heard negative remarks about transgender people. In addition, 56% were verbally harassed, 21% were physically harassed and 8% were physically assaulted about their gender expression.

A good starting place to find information, resources, professional development and organizations to connect with for educators, school and district leaders, LGBTQ+ students, and their family members is the Arizona Department of Education’s webpage at https://www.azed.gov/resources-lgbtq-students-educators-and-families.

Inclusion and engagement

Educators know student engagement increases when they see themselves reflected in what they’re learning and feel connected to other students and teachers.

That’s why efforts by Legislators in Arizona and other states to limit classroom discussions of race, ethnicity, gender, and sex that would make teaching social studies, literature, and health less accurate and engaging and more harmful to students.

“Pulling that kind of information out of the classroom and making it something that people can’t discuss, I think is so detrimental to kids today,” Abbott-Bayardi said.

School leaders know expanded opportunities to engage students through classroom content, music, sports, the arts and other extracurricular activities, lead to higher graduation rates.

Phoenix Union High School District unanimously approved a resolution against Arizona Senate Bill 1165 that bans transgender girls and women participating in sports teams that match their gender identity.

“Transgender youth do not deserve to be the targets of discriminatory, politically motivated legislation. They deserve the opportunity to participate in school athletic programs, and they deserve to do so without their rights being attacked,” said Aaron Márquez, a Phoenix Union High School District Board member in an Arizona Mirror article.

Legislation targeting LGBTQIA+ students & responses

Conservative Republican Legislators across the nation introduced 300 bills targeting LGBTQIA+ students and what teachers can discuss in class this session. Texas Legislators approved a bill that would charge parents with child abuse for seeking gender identity affirming care for their transgender children, and Florida Legislators banned educators from discussion gender identity and sexual orientation in the classroom.

In Arizona, several bills failed that would have limited classroom discussion of gender identity, sexual orientation and controversial topics which would impact English literature and social studies class discussions and Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses. Arizona Legislators approved Senate Bill 1165 that excludes students from participating in school sports teams that reflect their gender identity, and Gov. Doug Ducey signed the bill into law.

This legislation is similar to bills introduced in many other state legislatures this session. Last week, the U.S. Dept. of Education released proposed changes to Title IX on June 23, 2022, chief among them strengthened protections for LGBTQIA+ students who face discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation and the restoration of protections for students who are victims of sexual harassment, assault and sex-based discrimination weakened under the previous administration. Public comment on the changes is sought for the next 60 days. There will be a separate process to address Title IX’s application to athletics.

Arizona Legislators also approved House Bill 2495, which prohibits schools from referring students to or using any sexually explicit material in any manner and specifically targets any mention of acts of homosexuality. The bill did exclude classical and early American literature and a required book for a course to obtain college credit. The bill was sent to Gov. Ducey on June 24.

“There have been so many bills targeting LGBTQ+ youth, particularly trans and nonbinary youth, that negatively impact their life, both in terms of what happens in school and what happens outside of school,” said Aaron Ridings, chief of staff at GLSEN, an organization dedicated to protecting LGBTQ rights in K-12 schools, to Education Week.

In response to this legislation, President Joe Biden released his Executive Order on Advancing Equality for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex Individuals two weeks ago on June 15, 2022, saying these laws threaten civil right gains, are a form of discrimination, put LGBTQIA+ people at risk and threaten their personal safety. The Executive Order requires the U.S. Department of Education to support students, their families, educators and other school personnel targeted by harmful state and local laws by developing and promoting the adoption of policies, training and practices that support the safety, well-being and rights of LGBTQIA+ students in schools as well as promote safe and inclusive learning environments, address bullying, and ensure school based health services including mental health services are accessible to students.

What’s next

To respond to these bills targeting LGBTQIA students some Arizona school districts are discussing creating or updating policies supporting students’ gender identity and expression rights, privacy protections, use of preferred names, pronouns, and gender, dress codes, sports and physical education opportunities, restroom and locker room accessibility, gender-separated activities or programs, field trips and bullying, harassment, and discrimination policies.

Also, some states and schools are looking at policies that would ensure sex education is inclusive of non-heterosexual relationships, teen dating violence prevention policies include expanded definitions to cover same sex couples, and measures are put in place to prevent the unwanted disclosure of an individual’s gender identity or sexual identity, according to research in Child Trends.