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LGBTQ-Inclusive School Cultures: What's Policy Got to Do With It?

Recently we published a blog addressing educator reactions to the presence of transgender children in elementary schools. Since then we have received requests for more specific information about our vision for proactive policies and practices. This is a response to those questions.
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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.
  • Clear and specific procedures for responding to policy violation and for educating students, faculty, staff, and parents about these procedures.
  • Consistent and equitable enforcement of policy.
  • Dissemination and education plans for anti-discrimination, anti-bullying, and anti-harassment policies to faculty, all school staff, parents, and students.
  • A student, faculty, and staff code of conduct that sets a clear standard of respect for all students and takes specific measures to create a safe, affirming environment for students who have historically been marginalized in the school setting.
  • A code of conduct for guests on school premises that communicates the standard of respect for all. This should be posted in public spaces where parents and guests often gather, such as auditoriums or sports arenas. It can also be posted on special events programs and on advertising materials inviting the community into school space.
  • A comprehensive supervision and monitoring plan for all school spaces when students are present.
  • Disciplinary procedures that are mindful of research findings indicating that marginalized students are disproportionately sanctioned by school policies addressing "disruptive students" (students who disrupt or interfere with educational processes). Hypervisibility of LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming students can be (mis)construed as disruption, and students who try to defend their identities or stand up for themselves can be marginalized by these policies.
  • Thorough, respectful accommodation plans for transgender students.
  • A professional development plan that trains school professionals to a) be supportive of stigmatized student populations; b) understand the complexities of stigmatization, marginalization, bullying, discrimination, and harassment; c) prevent and respond to microaggressions as well as visible violence and harassment; d) create LGBTQ-inclusive curricula and multiple avenues to student social recognition; e) understand the specificities of LGBTQ discrimination and harassment; f) create classroom space that is not only "safe" but affirming for LGBTQ students; and g) trains school counselors and social workers to address the experiences of marginalized student populations in a nondiscriminatory and supportive way.
  • A proactive plan for creating a positive school culture that looks beyond eliminating overt acts of violence and addresses the school's roles in systemically marginalizing some students while privileging others.
  • A school plan to explore possibilities for elevating prestige and community visibility given to academics and the arts, thus increasing the tangible value the school community places on students who excel in these areas.
  • Inclusive curriculum that represent the contributions of LGBTQ people in all areas of study.
  • A commitment to incorporate images of gender diversity and different family structures including LGBTQ families in the posters, brochures, bulletin boards, and other sites of visual representation in the school.
  • Begin and actively support a gay-straight alliance (GSA) student club. Research supports that schools with GSAs have more positive climates and less harassment. Visibility of the GSA sends the message that the school acknowledges the presence of LGBTQ students.
  • Documented administrator support for LGBTQ students and families will empower teachers in directly confronting LGBTQ harassment and teaching inclusive curriculum.

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.
  • A school staff that is knowledgeable about the cultural norms students are using as tools for targeting one another. In particular, educators need in-depth information about what gender policing is, how it is used as a weapon in fighting for social position, and how gender norms affect every student. The cultural systems that allow for LGBTQ harassment are the same systems that create the possibility for gender policing throughout the social culture of school.
  • A school staff that is culturally competent in educating and supporting marginalized student populations. This includes training on the school experiences of marginalized students. LGBTQ students are a priority because of the severe social stigma that this identity group continues to experience in schools and in the U.S. culture at large.
  • Teachers who feel competent to create and present inclusive and affirming curricula including representations, contributions, and experiences of LGBTQ people, and to challenge the restrictions of the gender binary.
  • A school staff that is knowledgeable about what it means to be "hypervisible" in the school environment, and how this leaves some students (e.g., gender-nonconforming students) vulnerable to both unnecessary sanction from educators and intense harassment from peers.
  • An understanding that a "safe" school environment is the baseline requirement, and the goal is an affirming school environment.

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.
  • Include "other gender identity" when collecting gender data. All forms requiring gender information should include an additional gender option "box" or a blank where gender identity can be filled in. The presence of this option on all forms is educational as well as utilitarian. (Note: Many transgender students will choose M or F, as that is how many transgender people identify.)
  • Regardless of legal name or gender on official school records, use the student's chosen name and pronouns in all interactions. Procedures must be put in place to manage name use and insure consistency and the compliance of all school staff.
  • Students requesting school recognition of a gender different from the gender on official school records should not be required to provide a medical diagnosis to receive accommodations. Parents may request the accommodations for children K-8. High school students requesting the accommodation should be able to do so through work with the school counseling office.
  • Access to a gender-neutral bathroom. (How this is accomplished varies based on the school building facilities.)
  • Locker room accommodations for gym class. (How this is accomplished varies based on the school building facilities.) Students will not be required to use a locker room that conflicts with their gender identity. Should additional changing time be required due to location of the alternate changing site, that additional allotted time will be specified, and students will not be counted tardy for arriving late within that time frame.
  • Transgender students have a right to confidentiality. This includes the right to keep one's transgender status or gender-nonconforming presentation private at school. Procedures must be put in place to insure the maintenance of confidentiality. Information about a student's transgender status, legal name, or gender assigned at birth also may constitute confidential medical information.
  • Professional development or other educational opportunities will be provided to all school personnel working directly with a transgender student to insure competence in meeting the student's needs in an affirming way. (We recommend training the entire school faculty and staff prior to enrollment of a transgender student, or without revealing that there is a transgender child enrolled.)
  • When a new student known to be transgender enrolls, a safety and access plan should be developed in writing. This plan should include a school map of gender-neutral bathrooms and changing rooms, and the location of faculty and staff who are aware of the student's identity and educated to respond to the student's needs appropriately. We recommend a tour of the school space with the map prior to the first day of classes, and introduction of the student to the faculty and staff who will know about the child's identity and can serve as resources and support.

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),

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