Monday, October 25, 2010

Statement to the School Board on School Climate for LGBT Students and Staff

Here is the statement AHEM president Julie Blaha gave at tonight's school board meeting at the direction of the Representative Assembly:

Chair Heidemann, Superintendent Carlson, Members of the Board:

My name is Julie Blaha and I am the president of Anoka Hennepin Education Minnesota.  AHEM is our local teachers’ union representing over 2700 educators in the Anoka Hennepin School District.  I am here on behalf of our Representative Assembly, which is our governing body made up of representatives from each of our sites across the district.  They’ve directed me to discuss school climate issues relating to LGBT students and staff.

We have worked hard over the past few years to develop effective ways of addressing academic concerns in our district.  Just as we would take a systematic, student centered, researched approach to solving problems of achievement in our district, we should take a similar approach to our school climate. I would like to focus my remarks as kind of an assessment of our actions to date to create a better school climate for LGBT students and staff, and provide ideas for going forward. 

Let’s begin with an assessment of where we are right now.

Our suicide rate for students has increased, and a disproportionate number of those tragedies have involved LGBT students.  Over the past year, several students have come forward and described facing intolerable conditions at school because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation. 

Last January, in response these issues as well as changes in LGBT materials for our SEED classes, questions around the Day of Silence, and media coverage of an incident with a student, you may remember we asked for clear guidance and staff development around our sexual orientation curriculum policy and school climate issues in regards to LGBT students.

Though some staff received training on dealing with suicide, we hadn’t seen specific information by March, so we put out one of our pieces on creating safe spaces for GLBT students and staff to each of our members. 

Over the summer, school policy videos were created for students that contained segments on bullying language that addressed anti-gay slurs and a short PowerPoint presentation was created for secondary staff at middle and high schools.  Some staff members have also received a grid with hypothetical situations intended to clarify the neutrality statement in our sexual orientation curriculum policy.  At back to school workshops, teachers were told if they did not stop bullying behaviors they would be disciplined.  Some staff have also received copies of district press materials responding to media reports. 

To date, only those who have taken optional training like SEED classes or the Gary Howard training on cultural competency have had actual discussion about these topics.

In the media, we have seen statements ranging from things to the effect of “this is not something we are going to deal with” to “staff won’t be disciplined for supporting gay students”.  Statements to our members from district leadership have ranged from “if you don’t respond to bullying you will face disciplinary action” to last week’s message that we accept all of our students as normal and valued.

In short, we have taken some steps to improve our school climates, but they have not been all in the same direction.  There are a number of conflicting messages floating around.  We have had one way communication, but little actual discussion and virtually no assessment of whether our steps have made any progress forward.

Our next steps need to be creating a more focused, coherent plan to improve our school climate for LGBT students and staff.  Just as we would do if math test scores were low, let’s follow our processes of understanding the problem, making a plan, taking action, and assessing the results of those actions.

To help those first two steps along, I’ve provided a report from the Great Lakes Research Center released on September 30th titled Safe at School.  The report was commissioned by the regional research arm of the National Education Association of which our union is a member.  The report created by the National Education Policy Center out of the University of Colorado and the Williams Institute out of the UCLA.  The report lays out school level actions and public policy initiatives to improve the school environment for LGBT students. For anyone watching at home, the report can be found at

Of the steps outlined in the report, I’d like to highlight the recommendations on staff development.  Beginning on page 12, two key points are particularly relevant for us:

·         Develop and implement professional development for all school personnel (locally determined and agreed upon by faculty and staff), focusing on the challenges facing LGBT youth and seeking to generate collaborative, problem-solving approaches to address those challenges.

·         Structure professional development incrementally, beginning with only a modicum of content but providing opportunities to build on the initial steps.

Reading from the report:

Research has shown that professional development is best seen as a form of collaborative dialogue among educators as well as a vehicle for keeping abreast of new developments in their respective fields. Mandatory, top-down programs, where alleged experts are brought in on a one-time basis to lecture faculty and staff, are substantially less effective than brainstorming regarding new strategies and follow-up meetings to share results.

Such collaboration is inevitably enhanced by the participation of out LGBT educators and other openly LGBT members of the community, perhaps including out students from the older grades. Steps can be incremental in nature; even minor movement forward can matter greatly. Professional development can start off with items as simple and basic as an information sheet or an e-mail, expand to include guest speakers, film clips, and brainstorming regarding possible strategies, and even continue with a dialogue regarding changes in classroom pedagogy and curricular content.

Where there is confusion, there will be inconsistent or ineffective responses.  Where there is lack of communication, there will be hesitancy or avoidance.  An effective, clear staff development program for all of our staff will help clear up the confusion, and give teachers the tools to not only respond to bullying, but create a positive school climate to help prevent bullying in the first place.

I urge you to read the report, listen to your students, and bring us together to make a plan.

I also have a comment to students who are watching.  For all of you who have come forward to alert us to the problems we have in our school climates, thank you.  Your teachers want you to know that we hear you.  To all of our students who are suffering because of bullying or an unsupportive school environment, your teachers want you to know that we will work to make it better.

Members of the school board and all the staff here, if we address these issues openly, collaboratively, and proactively, we will make it better.  Let’s get to work.

Thank you.