Administrators within the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) are at the beginning of a long-term initiative to bring about more awareness and acceptance of the LGBT community in area schools.
Through the intended growth of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) across the school system, the visibility of LGBT students, families and teachers is expected to grow.
Coming out of the 2010 school year — one tainted by the tragedy of teen suicides as a result of bullying across the country — DCPS administrators felt an increasing need for a formal LGBT outreach program.
In 1998, the Gay-Straight Alliance Network was created to help empower students to unite and fight homophobia in schools. By 2005, the National Association of GSA Networks was formed, with the mission of uniting statewide organizations supporting GSAs and accelerating the growth of the movement nationwide. D.C.-based SMYAL is a member of the association.
Carolyn Laub, founder and executive director of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, sees tremendous growth in the movement over the past two or three years.
“Year after year there’s just this incredible growth of the GSA movement, nationwide. That growth of the GSA movement is being supported by, fueled by, local and statewide organizations that are supporting the GSA clubs in their region,” she says.
Despite the growth, there are still some great cultural shifts that need to be made in some states for GSAs to take root.
“Depending on what part of the country you are in, there are obstacles that might range from lack of administration support or teacher support in places where there is not employment protection for teachers,” Laub says. “Teachers will be reluctant to become a GSA adviser because they are worried about their own job security. That’s the case in places like Alabama. Teachers are reluctant to stick their necks out and become a GSA adviser.”
DCPS hopes to set an example for how a formal plan within a school system can bring about positive change. With only five or six out of 20 high schools in the District having formal GSAs in place, DCPS staff feels the time is right to expand.
“In the news last year there was a lot of information about kids committing suicide and we just felt that something needed to be done. … The moment was now,” says Diana Bruce, director of health and wellness for DCPS.
The DCPS looks to combat that fear and isolation in its schools through a publicity campaign.
Over the past few months, DCPS has been meeting and consulting regularly with parents, social workers, teachers, openly gay students as well as organizations like SMYAL and The Trevor Project. These individuals and groups formed a steering committee to put together a road map for how the District can be more proactive in putting an end to bullying and bringing about more awareness of the presence of LGBT students. What they have come up with is being referred to as “The LGBTQ Plan.”
The plan targets three groups: LGBT students, family and staff. DCPS staff met with each and conducted listening sessions.
“Not all of our schools are where we want them to be when it comes to welcoming and including LGBTQ students. Additionally, we heard that our staff wants more support around being able to be out, being able to have a picture of their spouse or partner on their desk. Some of our family members who identify as LGBTQ also said that they sometimes felt invisible,” Bruce says.
A key instrument in fulfilling the needs of the three groups is the idea of growing and enriching the role of GSAs in the public school system. The DCPS is essentially making a public statement regarding policies of tolerance and acceptance within schools surrounding the LGBT community.
“One way that we can support schools and staff who want to become advisers for GSAs is for DCPS centrally to communicate our values publicly,” Bruce says.
It’s making small but significant steps. In June, the school system made its first appearance in the Capital Pride parade. And a new Facebook page (facebook.com/dcpslgbtq) has been established. So far, fewer than 100 have “liked” the page, but they’re just starting to get the word out about its existence.
DCPS intends to use the Facebook page to get information out to interested parties. Individuals will be able to find out what schools have GSAs and their upcoming events and programming. While DCPS staff maintains control of the site and prohibits individuals from writing on the page’s wall, they intend to regularly share photos and feedback/suggestions for programming through it. In the long term, DCPS hopes to develop a private Facebook group for GSAs and SMYAL officials to share information among leaders and school administrators.
There are other plans that will be implemented pending funding such as a possible pilot program with 20 schools to study GSA benefits, updating all family-related teaching materials to include LGBT representation and having Trevor Project suicide-prevention material and training in place.
Andrew Barnett, executive director of SMYAL, praised the efforts.
“The Office of Youth Engagement at DCPS is showing great leadership in their work to make the system safer and more affirming for its LGBTQ students and other constituents, and SMYAL has appreciated being a part of the effort,” he says. “We’ve also been very impressed by the way in which Diana Bruce and her team have engaged so many different important stakeholders throughout the process. This critical work addresses one of our core responsibilities as a community: to provide a supportive path to adulthood for all of our young people. We look forward to seeing LGBTQ students have more opportunities to learn and thrive within DCPS as a result of this initiative.”
Louis Josey, 18, graduated last year from D.C.’s Maya Angelou Public Charter School. Josey remembers always being comfortable with his sexuality and came out to his family at 12. Even though he was pretty comfortable with being gay, Josey, who plans to enlist in the Navy, believes a GSA would have helped.
“There’s always a need for some structure,” he says. “Even though we [other fellow LGBT students] were working together, it took us to talk to every single teacher and every person on staff to figure out what was necessary in order to get our voices heard. If we would have had some structured group or organization there specifically focused on incorporating everyone into the community then I think it would have been a whole lot easier, it would been a whole lot more participants, and it would have just been easier for us to acclimate into the school.”
Though the plan’s success is yet to be determined, organizers are confident.
“We find it to be so powerful when students have the opportunity to network with each other online,” Laub says.
A bounty of resources are available to those hoping to start a GSA including live-stream online tutorials and national conferences and summits.
“GSA clubs take action to begin to change the school environment and they educate teachers and peers, they work to change policies,” Laub says. “That’s what we focus on in our National Gathering is how to help GSA clubs when you go back to your home state … here are the concrete things that your GSA clubs can do to take action to make it better for LGBT youth. Not just to create a safe haven within your club, but then to work on changing the school environment.”