School Administrators: Getting Them Onboard Is Key to Change for LGBTQ Students

We at QuERI are often asked what we would change in order to make schools more supportive for LGBTQ students and families. That list, frankly, is really long. Changing schools is not an easy thing and there is no magic program or quick fix. But it is important to not be overwhelmed by the task and to find a place to start -- a place that will actually have an impact. Increasingly, we are thinking that place is with school leadership. Principals substantially influence the impact of social justice initiatives in their schools and the extent to which faculty and staff feel they can participate in advocacy for sexual minority and gender non-conforming students. School leaders who provide consistent, visible, and vocal support for institutional change around diversity communicate the message that supporting LGBTQ students is the responsibility of everyone in the school community, not just those who volunteer to take on this work or who are known to be LGBTQ themselves. However, these pro-active leaders are few and far between.

Educational leaders rarely receive any formal training in their preparation programs on the experiences of LGBTQ students, and there is, unfortunately, a good deal of research documenting "the complacency and even participation" of school administrators in the "verbal and physical harassment" of sexual minority and gender non-conforming students. Ally teachers who want to act on behalf of LGBTQ youth often consider their administrators to be a key barrier to their advocacy. In our own research at QuERI, we hear this over and over again. Additionally, administrators tend to not see LGBTQ issues as related to curriculum, instructional methods, classroom management, or student success, so they often feel that addressing these issues is unimportant or "extra" rather than essential. What usually gets administrator attention is "risk": Risk to students' physical safety, to school reputation, to funding, and of lawsuits. Once they feel the threat in one of these risk areas, they jump to frantic risk reduction/management strategies.

This deficit frame -- placing LGBTQ students in a "risk" category -- positions the group of students identifying as LGBTQ as a potential "problem" for the school that requires a solution, rather than as a group of students bringing untapped assets and strengths into the school community. Collectively, the findings from research studies on the attitudes and perspectives of school leaders towards LGBTQ students and their needs draws attention to a serious problem: School administrators are neither trained nor feel responsible to actively address issues of inequity faced every day in school by gender non-conforming and sexuality minority students, families, and school personnel. This lack of knowledge makes it difficult to find school leaders who know enough about sexual and gender diversity to lead a school faculty in making decisions aimed at preserving the dignity of LGBTQ students and parents.

Another barrier to equity-focused leadership is the way school leaders think about the idea of "diversity" itself. Research indicates that the primary way school leaders assess the "level" or "amount" of diversity in their schools is through visibility. Through visibility, school leaders determine if the community where the school is located is "diverse" and through looking at the student population, they determine if their student body is diverse. So, they are looking to literally "see" difference to decide if they need to actively address diversity in their school contexts, and if they don't see any, then they think it's not a "problem" they need to address. Sexual identity and gender identity are not usually visible differences and their prevalence cannot be determined by "looking" at your student population. If administrators do determine that sexual and gender diversity is present, they tend to not see discrimination or to think that any discrimination that exists can be addressed by adding a "no-bullying" policy to address those individual "bad kids" who might discriminate or harass. School administrators typically feel the need to take action against discrimination targeting a specific population of students only if there is a significant amount of reported bias-based violence. The idea that students could be marginalized because of their identities, harassed daily in ways that never get reported, and that the school is complicit in reproducing heterosexism -- which is present outside of individual acts of violence and harms students -- is not in their worldview.

Unfortunately, school administration research illustrates several ways in which "educational administration, both as a field of academic inquiry and as a profession, has historically been at odds with -- if not in direct opposition to -- social justice." School administrators often find themselves in tension between bureaucratic regulations of public schooling and principles of social justice, and those school leaders who do recognize a need to address institutional oppression may come up against state or local policies or community resistance that are barriers to creating a safe and affirming learning environment for all students. Fear of such resistance filters down to school faculty and staff and influences how teachers and other school personnel think about creating inclusive school environments, and it can have a significant impact on the types of professional training and resources that are available to teachers. School principals are trusted to make decisions about the kinds of professional development their teachers need in order to meet the needs of their students.

School leaders who are invested in social justice education and developing inclusive school cultures work to establish trusting relationships with teachers, and facilitate "difficult and sensitive" conversations about the nature of institutional oppression and practices for supporting traditionally marginalized students. But this is not an easy road for them to take. In order to for principals to take this risk (and in many places, the risk is significant) they must first embrace the educational relevance and recognize the benefits to all students in increasing their faculty and staff's knowledge about sexual and gender diversity.

How to do this? There are several places to start. Many states across the country are enacting anti-bullying and anti-harassment laws. Some of these even name LGBT students as a protected category. Getting such a law -- particularly one inclusive of transgender students -- is quite a feat. But it is the education policies that are created, implemented and enforced (or not) around the law that establish how the law will manifest in educational systems throughout that state. This, unfortunately, is a whole other political struggle. We believe that these policies are key and must include provisions for pre-service education for all credentialed school personnel that specifically and thoroughly address the needs of LGBT students and families. That means that before a new principal receives certification to be a principal, they would be required to have been trained on the needs of LGBT students and how to support LGBT students and families as a part of compliance with the law. (Laws and policies do not currently address "Q" identities.)

We also believe that for principals who are already in-service, professional development designed specifically for administrators is a necessary step toward making the needs of LGBTQ students a priority in K-12 schools. In order for LGBTQ students to be fully included and affirmed in their schools, administrators must come to recognize the need for a continuous process of interrupting the systematic exclusion and stigmatization of these students in all arenas of school life: curriculum, social culture, policy, extracurricular activities, school ceremonies and rituals. Such training should frame LGBTQ youth as bringing value to the school community - not as risks to be managed or problems to be solved. Professional development curriculum needs to focus on developing a more accurate understanding of the prevalence of LGBTQ student harassment and bullying and the ways in which microaggressions and acts of gender policing are often subtle and continual -- these are forms of violence that rarely get reported. These acts of torment, ridicule and marginalization that impact LGBTQ students also impact students who do not identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning through a social hierarchy that demands youth conform to traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity.

School leaders need to learn about schools' complicity in the problem of LGBTQ bullying and introduce them to the concepts of heteronormativity, heterosexism, and how these work. These values are often reinforced and reproduced through school rituals, traditions, and awards that privilege heterosexuality and gender conformity. Administrators need tools and knowledge that will allow them to speak the words "lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning" without discomfort and understand what these words mean and who they represent. This knowledge will aid them in expressing their support for all students to the school community -- regardless of the biases of the larger community in which the school is located.

Possibly most importantly -- professional development must help administrators to stop assuming all students and parents are straight simply because educators cannot "see" their queerness. When school administrators can dismantle this assumption about their students and the families they serve, they are more able to understand LGBTQ students' needs and experiences as relevant to their daily decision-making and implement school policies that acknowledge the presence and needs of LGBTQ students and parents.