Doctoral student Bud Harrelson talks to educators in November at the Safe Schools NC conference “Educate with Pride! LGBTQ+ Conference for Educators and Support Staff,” held in Chapel Hill.

Doc student Bud Harrelson working to make schools safer

Bud Harrelson, a doctoral student in Policy, Leadership and School Improvement, is already digging into work aimed at helping students. He’s doing it by helping teach educators about the needs of LGBTQ students. Harrelson says that by making schools safer for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, those schools become safer for everyone. In an interview with #SOElongform, he talks about that work.

By Michael Hobbs

Bud Harrelson is driven. Teaching in schools in Greensboro, he learned that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students who are struggling with their identities and how to fit in needed help. But teachers like himself — even though he is gay — don’t always know how best to give that support.

That’s where Harrelson is working.

Harrelson, in addition to his work as a doctoral student in Policy, Leadership and School Improvement, devotes time to helping show educators how they can help LGBTQ students.

Harrelson has taught chemistry, physics and pre-calculus for Guilford County Schools. He has also served as coordinator for gifted education and worked as the director of school improvement for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools.

He has also served as president of International Baccalaureate schools in North Carolina. He has also worked with teachers and other educators on implementing change, having worked to help implement Common Core State Standards and Race to the Top initiatives.

It’s work that has given him some perspective.

“I am over fighting people with change,” Harrelson says.

But change is happening.

With marriage equality having been ruled constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, more students will be entering schools coming from families with same-sex parents. More gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students will be open about their identities.

And educators will need to know how to help.

Harrelson and Meg Goodhand (M.S.A. ’12, Ed.D. ’14) pose at the Safe Schools NC conference.

Harrelson is one of the leaders of a group — Safe Schools NC — that has worked to support educators wanting to learn more about how to support LGBTQ students. School of Education alumnae Meg Goodhand (M.S.A. ’12, Ed.D. ’14 ), principal at E.K. Powe Elementary School in Durham, and Jen Benkovitz (M.S.A. ’03, Ed.D. ’08), are other leaders of the group.

The three and others working with Safe Schools NC organized a conference in Chapel Hill in November for educators, helping them develop better understandings of LGBTQ issues and how to help LGBTQ students. In its second year, more than 170 educators from around the state — including teachers, counselors, principals and school board members — attended.

Harrelson talked about the work. Following is an edited transcript of the conversation.

SOE: Why is this work needed?

Harrelson: Teachers typically lack an understanding of the needs of LGBTQ students. They may not know how to implement interventions effectively to support them. The literature also says teachers don’t know how to support LGBTQ kids and the literature also says LGBTQ topics are missing in their preparation work.

Harrelson talks about Safe Schools NC and the conference work.

So, you’ve got to address the problem. We have to address not only the preparation at the [university teacher-preparation] level, but we have to address the current workforce as it exists. So, this was one of our ideas, strategies for addressing the current workforce and helping them begin to understand the needs of LGBTQ kids.

We know that when we create safer schools for queer kids that we create safer schools for all kids. The literature also tells us that.

SOE: How much are you able to accomplish in a day?

Harrelson: We try to raise awareness and point to resources. The goal was to make people aware that there is a need.

Typically, folks don’t understand that there is a need. They think that the typical school experience is the heterosexual school kid’s experience and that the gay kid’s experience is just like that. But it’s not.

So the goal is to make them aware, and aware of what resources are available. And then how to consider being advocates in their building to help support kids.

SOE: The folks who came, are they already predisposed and open? Are they really the people you need to reach? Or, are you preaching to the choir?

Harrelson: I would say they had to be at least interested to come. And most of them had to travel to come.

However, my philosophy on change is a little different. I believe in low-hanging fruit first. I did Race to the Top in my previous life. Common Core, teacher evaluations. I am over fighting people with change.

So, low-hanging fruit first. And then the people who are not quite sure. Then we build a critical mass and then eventually the policy will change and the folks who aren’t willing will either change or leave.

One of my thoughts is with the Obergefell case, in a Supreme Court decision the Supreme Court made LGBTQ rights in education an issue. So, we’re going to have more people come out because they now can be married. Society is changing. We’re going to have more gay people get married and have kids. I’ve been encountering that.

The Obama administration has a legacy of supporting transgender rights. As that grows, we’re going to have parents who are transgender. We’re going to have more kids who are transgender.

… I don’t want us to be reactive, because when the kid shows up at the school I don’t want them to have to think through “What am I going to do to support this kid?”

And so, a teacher is going to have to understand the needs of the kid who has same gender parents. A teacher is going to have to be able to put aside whatever their faith beliefs are and have a parent conference with a transgender parent or two dads or two moms and give them the same level of respect that they would give a heterosexual couple. Teachers are going to have to pay attention to how the class responds to a kid who has same-gender parents.

We’re going to introduce this nuance where we have straight kids who have gay parents. I’m not just going to have gay kids now. We’re going to possibly experience marginalization. With that principals and superintendents need to know.

And I know that’s going to be hard sometimes. But I don’t want us to be reactive, because when the kid shows up at the school I don’t want them to have to think through “What am I going to do to support this kid?” I want them to already know, so the kid feels like they planned for me. “They thought about me. I am welcomed here,” versus “They don’t know what to do. They are acting weird. They don’t want me here.”

Harrelson talks with an educator at the Safe Schools NC conference in November.

My motivation for this work is that I taught two transgender students. One had a great experience in a middle college environment.

I was 23 years old. A second-year teacher. Tim* was in my first period chemistry class. He spent the class putting his makeup on and changing clothes with the girls, all that kind of stuff. Basically had an F. And I struggled. In middle college you’re supposed to meet them where they are and figure out their needs and goals to help them graduate, not be an inhibitor.

So I asked him after the first nine weeks: “I need to know what I can do to help you.” And he said: “I can’t leave the house as Donna.* My mom doesn’t know. I’m not sure how she’s going to respond.”

So we made a deal. He can be ten minutes late to class. We have a 90-minute period. He can be ten minutes late and he can come to class as Donna. He can go to the school bathroom and change. But I would have his attention for 80 minutes. He could write whatever name he wanted on his papers and I would know that Donna was Tim and Tim was Donna. And in my grade book, I would take care of it. And I would not refer to him as Donna in front of his mom.

He went from a F to B. He made a 3 on the end-of-grade chemistry test. Those ten minutes made all the difference in the world to be able to have him focused. Now Tim lives as Donna. She is strong citizen. She contributes to the Greensboro community. You would not know that she was a potential high school dropout.

Jamie* was not the same experience. I taught Jamie when I worked at a super comprehensive, competitive high school. The complete opposite of middle college.

Jamie shows up already presenting as a girl. Trouble begins when Jamie starts to use the girls’ restroom. She carried her Hello Kitty pocket book. Those kind of things. So we had to think about: How do we support Jamie?

SOE: Who is “we”?

Harrelson: The school leadership. The principal, counselor. How do we support Jamie? The school had gender neutral restrooms that were for kids with special needs. So we just gave her a key to that. However, it maybe wasn’t the best thing, but that’s what it was then.

Harrelson listens during the keynote addresses.

She struggled in Algebra 2. It was really hard for him to pass Algebra 2 to graduate. And then she doesn’t show up for graduation.

She had been at graduation practice. She had walked through and all that kind of stuff.

So at graduation day, you cannot be late. You‘ve got to be here. But, she is not there. I call her, text her and she doesn’t respond. Eventually, I get her and I ask, “Why didn’t you come?” I worked my ass off to help this kid pass Algebra 2. So, this was a celebration was for all of us.

She said that at graduation practice she was told that he had to dress as a boy if she wanted to walk across the stage. We had never told Jamie that she had to come dressed at school as a boy.

Someone told her she couldn’t wear a dress and so she just didn’t come.

So, the kids taught me what to do. I still don’t always know what to do.

I had a principal early in my career, when I used to complain about kids being the problem or not doing what they need to do. And she would calmly look at me and say, “What are you going to do about it?”

She fostered reflection. She helped me understand that I teach kids. I don’t teach subjects. I teach humans. And, it’s my job, not necessarily their job, to do something about it at times. It’s my job to show them that there are different ways to go about it. So, that “What am I going to do about it?” I hear in my head.

Often that’s the motivation for me to take a risk, to be outside of the norm.

A lot of folks don’t believe that they know somebody who identifies as LGBTQ. So, as it becomes more accepting and more safe for them to come out I think people will begin to realize “Oh, So-and-So is not bad.”

And, then there’s this whole notion of “I don’t like gay people, but I like Bud because he is our gay.” So that builds resilience in gay kids.

I think time will get us there. Population demographic change will get us there. I don’t expect it be perfect overnight, and it’s probably never going to be perfect.

In my mind, my work has to be slow and steady, versus fits and starts. It’s a commitment. It’s a sign of dedication. I really take it from the tortoise and hare. Slow and steady is a mindset for me.

*NOTE: Pseudonyms are used for the students’ names.