By Andres Perez
This month, The Senate Education Committee will debate the Safe and Supportive School Act, sponsored by Assemblymember and San Diego mayoral candidate Todd Gloria, along with State Superintendent for Public Instruction Tony Thurmond. The legislation would continue Mr. Gloria’s longstanding work on this issue and his role as a champion of the LGBTQ community. If Mr. Gloria were to win the mayoral race, he would be the first LGBTQ mayor of San Diego.
In my own classroom, I’ve often had to ask the question, “Why did you use the word ‘gay’ to describe that action?” Students will sometimes use the word ‘gay’ in an insult or a joke. In these moments, I run though a protocol. I stop class and ask the student to explain their use of the word and we discuss the implications. Usually, the student didn’t mean to hurt anyone. They understand how their actions are inappropriate and apologize. I try my best to handle each of these moments with thoughtfulness and justice. This is effective but I think we can do better.
The Safe and Supportive School Act would ensure all teachers receive training on how to support LGBTQ students. As a teacher, I want access to more resources and professional development. I also want to know that all schools are taking time to reflect on how to support our LGBTQ students.
This reflection is much needed. A short ten years ago, California voters banned gay marriage with the passing of Proposition 8, so it should come as no surprise that LGBTQ students still face countless obstacles to learning harassment-free. According to the 2017 National School Climate Survey, more than a third of LGBTQ students reported missing a day of school in the past month because of fear of bullying. Meanwhile, the Trevor Project reports that suicide remains the second most frequent cause of death for youth ages 10–24, with LGBTQ youth three times more likely to seriously contemplate it as an option. How can children learn when the fear of harassment is that great?
While in recent years California has moved to remove systemic obstacles for students, the state does not prioritize LGBTQ students in the same way it does other groups. For example, schools are tasked with including LGBTQ history into their curriculum, yet the degree to which this has been done across the state is unclear. Less than a third of school staff report that they have the adequate resources to support LGBTQ students at their school and 60 percent of schools lack a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA). Studies show that integrating resources into school routines and creating a strong network of parents, teachers, students, and community members can improve the education environment for our LGBTQ students. Yet, creating these systems in schools takes hard work. The Safe and Supportive Schools Act could help spur action in schools.
At my school, teachers have created elective courses that focus on gender expression to help students redefine what it means to be “man enough.” Our GSA, affectionately called our Love Club, provides students with a safe place to go after school. Teachers make sure students know their classrooms are safe places where all identities are welcome. The Safe and Supportive Schools Act would hold us accountable and a regular meeting could be a time for us to study best practices that we may not have considered.
Not far from our school in Chula Vista, there is a new center for LGBTQ students. The South Bay Youth Center provides a variety of resources for students, including on-site therapists, safe spaces, and a place to be yourself. Ideally, all teachers in our community learn about this center and its resources through regular training. Teachers and the center could work together to create a curriculum that focuses on LGBTQ rights and history. Together, students, teachers, and the community could create a culture in San Diego that emphasizes empathy and respect. I hope California can help us accomplish this goal, together, by passing the Safe and Supportive Schools Act.
Andres Perez teaches 10th grade humanities at High Tech High Chula Vista in Chula Vista, California. He is a Teach Plus California Policy Fellowship alum.