Every year, school seems to become a more and more complicated place for staff and students. Transgender staff and students are facing discriminatory policies in many states that make it more difficult to be themselves and get support at school. People with transgender, gender creative, or gender non-conforming children are scared for their children’s safety and well-being at school. There are so many parents creating safe, loving home environments in which children can thrive and explore and be themselves without being put into boxes. Those parents are being undermined by government policies that dictate school staff insult and harm their children.
In some places, government mandates are changing what young people learn, dictating false histories, and removing age-appropriate lessons that teach social and emotional skills that help young people thrive and can prevent violence. Public schools could be places to create equity, safety, and strengthen a community’s resources and care for its young people. Many teachers and school staff work hard to make schools these places to the best of their abilities. It’s tragic that some politicians and hate groups are working to dismantle this critical service. Teachers are making difficult choices about whether or not to continue teaching in places they can’t be themselves.
In addition, sexual violence and harassment continue to take place in schools. Trans students report higher rates of sexual harassment compared to non-trans students, and discriminatory bathroom and changing room policies are making it worse.
Federal law provides for the right of students to “Feel safe at school after sexual assault or sexual harassment. Your school is required by law to provide a safe learning environment that is not “hostile” to you, which includes creating an environment that’s free from violence, harassment, and intimidation.” Check out Equal Rights Advocates resources to learn more.
For some people school is a haven, a safe place to be themselves, learn, and grow. It may be filled with beloved friends, supportive adults, and opportunities to explore. It may be a place of calm or predictability in a world that isn’t that. For others, school is a place of trauma and harm. It may be overwhelming or filled with people who harass, bully, or misgender a person. Staff may contribute to harmful actions through racial discrimination or anti-LGBTQ harassment.
For many people, school is some of both. Often it’s a place that people are required to be, whether they like it or not.
One trans person reported to FORGE:
“School was awful for me. Though I got some support in finding academic programs to meet my needs, no one ever told me that anything could be done about the teacher that bullied me for years. Everyone knew it was happening – other students, teachers, my parents. But nothing ever happened. Back then, it didn’t occur to me that there was anyone who could do anything about it, including myself. I’ve realized now that my parents also didn’t realize there was anything they could do.”
This echoes the experiences of many students and families. Trying to navigate how to make school a safer place can be overwhelming and exhausting. Some families don’t have the time to contact teachers and administrators, to attend meetings, and to be involved in the ways that they want to. Some students don’t want anyone to know what is happening.
Everyone deserves for school to be a place of safety, support, and liberatory education. While we work to get there, we can also look for the ways that we can make an impact now. Feeling like there isn’t anything you can do is a big hurdle to overcome. There are actions that we can all take to support safer and more affirming school environments.
What you can do:
Stay informed about what is happening in schools. This might mean talking to other people in your community about their experiences, reading the news, or asking questions. Some of the nationwide trends include:
- Book bans
- Harmful curriculums and educational censorship
- Forced outing
- Hostile climate
- Lack of protection for students
There are positive things happening in schools too.
- Gender and Sexuality Alliances
- Liberatory approaches to education
- Advocacy for consent and positive sexuality education
Know about the rights that students have. Young people have the right to education in a safe environment. Some of these policies can help understand what those rights mean in action and how to access them. It can be overwhelming to track all of the laws and policies that affect students around the country. Check out this collection of state by state laws related to education. Title IX Is a federal policy that guarantees students the right to education free from gender discrimination, which includes sexual harassment and violence.
Each school district will have its own set of policies based on federal, state, and local laws. Checking for their policies on sexual harassment/violence, bullying, safety, and any transgender specific guidance can be helpful. Schools should be able to provide a copy of the policies. Many school districts also make a copy available online.
Equal Rights Advocates has a number of informative toolkits including:
- Student Survivor Toolkit
- Know Your Rights: Gender Discrimination
- Know Your Rights: Sexual Harassment and Assault
Statewide organizations may have additional resources specific to the laws of your state or territory. Here’s one example for Florida.
Resist harmful policies. Teachers, schools, and school districts can refuse to comply with policies that cause harm. Though this action may not be without consequences, many people are taking steps to ensure that they are acting in ways that best support student safety and well-being. As one example, the Arlington school district refused to comply with Virginia’s new statewide policies, stating that their own policies were already best practices for all students.
In California, community members resisted protests by donating books and funding to a local library. San Diego community members donated $15,000 which the city matched, after anti-trans protestors refused to return library books.
Seek out information.
With the increase of laws that keep information about history, systems of oppression, and LGBTQ lives and identities out of schools, students and parents can seek out other places to get a well-rounded education.
- Look for local or virtual groups providing alternative education. In Florida, some communities are hosting Freedom Schools, based on the Black Civil Rights movement Freedom Schools.
- Many libraries are making efforts to have Pride displays or to showcase banned books. Librarians can help with research skills as well.
- Search for resources online. Check out state and national LGBTQ orgs for ideas or search for book lists on topics being banned in schools.
Learn about resources that can help young people. A few examples are here:
- Resources for transgender college students
- Trans Student Educational Resources
- Transgender Law Center Youth Resources
It can also be helpful to know what hate groups are active in your area. Many hate groups have misleading names. By knowing what groups are operating in your area, you may be better equipped to understand the messages they are conveying and think through whose information to trust. This guide provides information on youth radicalization and online extremism, with tips on how supportive adults can help young people navigate online hate. Groups like Moms for Liberty or Parents for Liberty promote anti-trans agendas and have been especially active at many school boards, even when their members do not have children in that district.
Build community. Often we might feel alone in trying to make change. It is likely there are others that share your views or experiences. Talk to others about what’s happening. This can provide the opportunity for validation and support. Others may be able to say that they saw the harm as well or also experienced it. Remember, you aren’t alone.
For the student quoted above, having other students say, “wow, that was terrible,” helped them to know they were right about what was happening. By sharing with safe people, you may be able to get emotional support or learn about other resources to help address the issue.
Identifying supportive adults can be difficult. Some young people find bringing up a topic, without connecting it to their experience can help them know someone’s point of view before disclosing. For example, you might say, “What do you think can be done about sexual harassment in schools?” or “Have you been paying attention to the news about transgender students in sports?” You may find that people share information that’s hurtful to you, but this gives you the opportunity to know their views before they know your story. Many students also find it useful to ask for help in helping “a friend.” You might ask for ideas on where your friend can go to get support and be able to learn valuable information without disclosing anything personal.
Adults can help by knowing what is required of them by law and what isn’t. Mandatory reporting laws as well as school-based policies about disclosing information to parents can be vague. Adults can work to get clarity on the actions they have to take (and ones they refuse to take) and share that information clearly and transparently with young people. This helps young people make informed decisions about what to share.
Connecting with others can also help you understand your ideas by talking them through. Sometimes when we start to feel that something isn’t right, it can be helpful to have someone listen and learn with us. Talking can help us put our thoughts together and find additional resources.
Adults can help by listening to students and working together to find solutions. This guide provides helpful tips for parents of trans and nonbinary kids. Caregivers can find a lot of support and learn more about what is happening at a school by talking to other caregivers. This can help you to identify patterns at the school and find others who can help address a problem.
Promoting connection in schools – between students, between staff and students, between caregivers and students, all helps to improve mental health and wellbeing. Whatever role you have in a school system, there are ways to encourage connection, through building empathy, listening, and support. Check out the National Equity Project’s article on Ecosystems of Care to get more ideas.
Organize. Teen Vogue has a powerful article with tips from trans students about organizing. Student organizing can be an amazing way to make change. Remember that student and youth organizing has been a major part of every social justice movement in the United States. Organizing can be difficult and empowering. Young people’s voices are often left out of the current conversations about schools.
One example: Students and young people in Florida were a major part of the organizing to ensure that all school districts in the state had a dating violence policy.
One possible action step is to go to school board meetings. Check out this planning guide to help prepare to speak at local meetings. Parents and other community members can help end book bans. Check out this resource for action ideas and guidance.
Create inclusion. Students, teachers, staff, schools, parents, and school districts all can play a role in helping ensure that schools are inclusive, supportive learning environments for all students. Policies and practices at the state, district, and school level can help with this. Start by reviewing existing policies for inclusion and safety. There are many existing tools to create safer schools for LGBTQ+ students and staff, for example:
- Policy resources
- Trauma-Informed supports for LGBTQ students
- A guide for supporting transgender students in K-12
Learn about creating inclusive classrooms, for trans/nonbinary students, disabled students, and students of all races. Teachers can take opportunities to move towards community in lesson plans whenever possible. Seeking student input on projects and lessons in one of many ways to do this.
Safety plan. Young people may also be at risk of violence or harm at school. If your physical or emotional safety is at risk at school, consider thinking through a safety plan. This could be done on your own or with others you trust. If your safety is at risk because of a dating partner, a domestic violence organization may be able to help you think through safety planning. Safety plans include ideas like what you can do to try to avoid the violence, how you can respond or where you can go if violence happens, and how to get help in an emergency. Depending on the situation, a school may work with you to change your schedule. Joining together with others, so you are less isolated can help increase safety around the school.
Supportive adults can help in this process by collaborating with the young person in your life. Discuss options that feel safest for them and help them to access resources as needed.
Here are two guides to safety planning to draw on for additional ideas:
Schools are a major part of most people’s lives in the United States. The harm and trauma that happens at school can have a lasting impact. At the same time, the support, growth, and learning that can happen at school can also make a huge difference throughout the lifespan. Many adults are shaped by the kindness and support of a teacher or coach. We all have the opportunity to take the steps that are possible for us to make schools safer for everyone.