New York education officials on Monday had a message for gay, lesbian and transgender students: We support you — even if President Donald Trump doesn’t.
State Board of Regents officials, during a meeting in Albany on Monday, outlined steps the state has taken to protect LGBTQ students against discrimination and spotlighted a Guildlerand High School club that works to strengthen student resiliency.
Regent Josephine Finn said that, while citizens have the right to seek a restraining order from the courts if someone causes them harm, gay, lesbian and transgender students have to regularly endure mistreatment that emanates from the highest levels of government in the country.
“And yet we have this kind of thing going on from the top right down to our neighborhoods,” Finn said. “For students to be committing suicide because they don’t think anyone cares, that’s crazy.”
The Trump administration, in February 2017, revoked federal protections for transgender students who sought the right to use the public school restrooms that match their gender identity, a policy put in place by President Barack Obama. Last month, Trump administration officials indicated it was considering a move that would define gender as a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth.
Eliza Byard, executive director of GLSEN, a nonprofit focused on supporting LGBTQ students, told the Board of Regents that the presidents’ actions endangered progress made in recent years toward better serving LGBTQ students.
“Whatever one thinks of those policies, they are having a devastating effect on all of our students,” Byard said. “They need our help. They need to know that they are loved.”
Eliza Byard told the Board of Regents that gay, lesbian and transgender students face more mental health and behavioral risk factors than their straight classmates. They are more likely to be called names or bullied, have rumors spread about them and to miss school for safety reasons.
She said schools need to be sensitive to the needs of LGBTQ students and work to ensure they feel included in the school community by offering supportive adult relationships; including adding gay history and culture into the curriculum; and promoting student clubs, like gay-straight alliances. She cited research that shows the establishment of gay-straight alliance clubs lifts student academic performance and improves the school culture in schools where they are formed.
While nearly all LGBTQ students in a 2015 survey reported having at least one supportive educator in their school, less than a third reported having an inclusive curriculum, and only about 20 percent reported having comprehensive policies in place for combating discrimination against LGBTQ students.
The work must start in the earliest grades, where students begin to take cues from adults about whether they will be supported as they form their personal identities, Byard said.
“It starts right away,” she said.
Byard said 65 percent of LGBTQ students in New York state reported being verbally harassed because of their sexual orientation, and 30 percent reported having been either physically harassed or assaulted because of their orientation.
She also pointed out that fewer students reported hearing the phrase “that’s so gay” at school, but still more than 80 percent of students had heard the phrase.
“That’s progress, but discouraging that we are still there,” Byard said.
The presentation also highlighted a program at Guilderland High School called Sources of Strength, a group of student leaders and adult mentors who work to foster a positive and inclusive atmoshpere in the school. Students from the program said students feel more comfortable and supported when they see that their teachers and other adults in the school are there for them.
“We focus on including everyone,” said Guilderland student Sophie Vieni.
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