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Opinion: School Equity Plans Leave Out LGBTQ Youth During Pandemic

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LEE member Samantha Ellison works as a Public Policy Fellow for the Boston Public Schools Office of Equity. The following piece was written by Samantha as her final product for the Developing a Compelling Op-ed course.

K-12 school districts across the country are working in the trenches to be able to meet the needs of all their students and families during the COVID-19 pandemic. School districts have been using data to better understand where to focus their attention and efforts as they navigate through this crisis.

But what happens when there is limited or no data on LGBTQIA+ youth available? Or worse, what if the people who work with LGBTQIA+ students are not at the decision-making table? The result - LGBTQIA+ youth are not seen as a priority and are often left out or purposefully hidden from district-wide equity plans.

Many students in the LGBTQIA+ community, especially our Black and Brown students, are experiencing the social distancing transition in unique ways. Black and Brown students who identify or are perceived to be LGBTQ, may find themselves in environments that do not affirm their identity or place them at risk for abuse or victimization.

Some schools have been courageous and created safe spaces for LGBTQIA+ students. For many students, schools serve as a place where they develop broad and diverse support systems and a sense of community. Students may even have safety plans in place that provide them the space to be their authentic self at school – a self they can’t be at home. When LGBTQIA+ students are forced to self-isolate in unsafe and non-affirming environments, the pernicious effect on their mental and physical health can be devastating.

Laws and policies protecting LGBTQIA+ students to attend safe and affirming schools differ state to state. LGBTQIA+ students experience in-person and online bullying, harassment, and discrimination at higher rates than their peers.These rates are compounded even higher when race is added into the equation. Currently, there are only 21 states, in addition to the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico with enumerated anti-bullying laws designed to protect students based on sexual orientation and gender identity. 

Though, no federal response has passed, The Safe Schools Improvement Act was introduced in the House of Representatives in May of 2019. The act, if passed, would amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 by adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected categories and increase overall data collection and reporting efforts, ensuring every student is protected from bullying and harassment in K-12 schools. 

The amount of crisis contact received by the Trevor Project, a leading LGBTQ intervention/suicide prevention organization, since the shutdown of schools has increased immensely. LGBTQIA+ youth have been found to be at an increased risk for depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicidality during these times of heightened anxiety and isolation.

Many factors come into play when examining these increased risks. For LGBTQIA+ students living in unsafe environments, there might be an increase in negative social interactions as “one-third experience parental acceptance, with an additional one-third experiencing parental rejection, and the final one-third not disclosing their LGBTQ identity until they are adults.”

In addition to a decrease in positive social interactions during COVID-19, LGBTQ students may face economic challenges, housing instability, barriers to health care, and an increased risk to human trafficking.

As K-12 school districts close for the spring and plan for the possibility of a modification in the structure of schooling come fall, it is important for school districts to bring together stakeholders from the community, such as local GLSEN and/or PFLAG chapters, with district and school leaders working to provide adequate supports and resources to LGBTQIA+ students during these unprecedented times. 

Schools should look into leveraging existing program supports such as Gender Sexuality Alliances (GSAs) to provide LGBTQIA+ students access to supportive communities and to check-in on the wellbeing of students. Places like Gender Spectrum also provide virtual opportunities for LGBTQIA+ students to connect. School or community ethnic/cultural clubs may also provide safe spaces for LGBTQIA+ students of color related to their multiple identities, including sexual orientation, gender identity, and race/ethnicity. 

Districts must also work closely with school social workers, counselors and student advocates to develop individualized safety support plans for LGBTQIA+ students who may be closely monitored at home and have little to no access to connect virtually or over the phone. 

Mental health teams also must be prepared to assist transgender and non-binary students who may experience increased waves of gender dysphoria. As states continue to be locked down, transgender and non-binary students also are at risk for disrupted access to social services, hormone therapy, and gender-affirming surgeries. 

In a time where LGBTQIA+ issues continue to be controversial and political within the K-12 setting, it is important for equity-minded leaders to step up and do what is right for some of our most vulnerable students. 

Samantha Ellison works as a Public Policy Fellow for the Boston Public Schools Office of Equity.

Op-eds are a vehicle by which individual people can take a stance on an issue & call for action. The Developing a Compelling Op-ed course is designed for members to gain a background on what an op-ed is & have an opportunity to develop an op-ed of their own.

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