LGBT Students Work to Ensure Safe and Supportive Schools for all Students

Yesterday, myself and four other LGBTQ Activists from GLSEN had the honor of sitting down with US Secretary of Education, Dr. John King, in his second to last day in office. Amid a changing administration, the Secretary offered his words of advice, and listened to our experiences as LGBTQ students as well as our hopes for inclusivity in the future of education.  I think all of us, both visitors from GLSEN and the staff at the Department of Education, can agree that we all walked away with valuable information, useful connections, and an even stronger motivation to fight for student’s rights in schools.

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Much of our conversation with the Secretary consisted of talking about our experiences in schools and how the federal government can further support LGBTQ students. We discussed issues like discriminatory bathroom policies, discrimination and bullying in schools, LGBTQ inclusive curriculum, and mutual respect among teachers, administrators, and our peers. As students, we proposed new ideas to help make schools more inclusive: e.g. class rosters with student’s preferred names and pronouns, accessible gender neutral bathrooms, and school bullying policies that specifically mention LGBTQ identities. We also talked about various steps the Department of Education has taken in the last few years; how they have improved school climates, and ways that there’s still room for growth.

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At one point in the meeting, Secretary King asked us what an ideal school would look like to us, concerning LGBTQ issues. Among the five of us, we came to the agreement that our perfect school would be one where we are simply treated as equal. However, the reality is that we have a long way to go. This includes having curriculum that represents all identities, because when students feel they can see themselves in their learning, they subsequently feel safer in school, and begin to perform better. Equality in schools is also about stopping and preventing bullying against LGBTQ youth. For example, instead of solely punishing students who have bullied someone, we also have to engage with them in communication about why their actions were wrong, how they can affect others, and how to prevent similar events in the future. Because, as we agreed in our meeting, bullying and discrimination rarely stem from malicious intent, but rather from ignorance and a lack of knowledge about other identities.Our main question for the Secretary was where do we, both activists and the federal government, go from here? With a changing administration, it’s uncertain what the future holds regarding the Department of Education. Luckily, career staffers who will be remaining in the department attended the meeting, and will be able to carry our experiences and thoughts into their future work. When asking what we should do to help improve the national school climate, the Secretary ensured us to continue fighting for our rights and for the rights of other students. Furthermore, he told us that any change we make is valuable, as it contributes to a larger whole.

As I move forward in my work as a student activist, I hope to keep the Secretary’s words of wisdom and encouragement close to my heart, and I would only hope that other students across the country can do the same.

This session was a part of the ongoing “Student Voices” series at the Department through which students engage with senior staff members to help develop recommendations on current and future education programs and policies.

Katie Regittko is a Junior at Crossroads Flex High School.