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Changing Social Norms in School



Changing Social Norms in School Starts With a Conversation

by Amy Fabrikant-Eagan

Originally published by Technorati March 12, 2012. Reproduced here with permission from the author.


Look and listen during a lunch period in any suburban middle school cafeteria – It’s quite easy to see the “popular” kids in the lunchroom by looking to the tables that are packed. It’s also simple to find the students that don’t feel that they fit in – just look to the emptier tables. For those kids at the less populated tables, it’s a clear sign for the adults in the building that they may need some extra support.

The thing that is harder to see than the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning) kid that may sit alone, is the one suffering silently. Many LGBTQ kids function in an overdrive mode to sit at those packed tables to fit in, no matter how unpleasant the experience may be. Often for LGBTQ kids, middle school poses unique challenges that their straight counterparts do not face, because they are figuring out their true sexual and/or gender identities under crippling homophobic environments.

It’s also not just the students that face challenges in school settings, but staff too. A 6th grader named Suzy, ran away crying when she saw a picture of a teacher at his wedding, the two husbands smiling in their tuxedos. Suzy’s parents met with the principal to explain that they had wished to be the ones to tell their daughter about “gay people.” The principal cautioned the teacher that the parents did not want him conversing with their daughter again about anything other than schoolwork. There were no further discussions with the student, the teacher, or the staff about “gay people.”

LGBTQ people are treated as second-class citizens in many schools. Both kids and adults are marginalized by hetero-social norms. Too often, students and faculty alike do not feel they have the knowledge or skills to handle situations like the one described above. According to the Huffington Post, in an article on school bullying, the Anoka-Hennepin School Board in Minnesota agreed to strengthen the district’s efforts to prevent sex-based harassment after two of 10 students committed suicide and others challenged district policy to require staff to remain neutral on sexual orientation in the classroom. The harassment of students who fail to conform to social norms and stereotypes combined with the inability of the teachers and administrators in the school to protect them is a serious growing concern, and in this Minnesota district, the U.S, District Judge agreed and awarded student-plaintiffs $270,000. Schools need to take steps to ensure that it meets its obligation to respect every student and foster learning in a safe environment where each child can grow socially, and emotionally, as well as academically.

Most states have issued new anti-bullying laws to address the concerns of hostile environments toward LGBTQ kids. There is a belief that anti-bullying laws and policies are enough to create these safe spaces for LGBTQ youth. The laws take shape as consequences for the bully and a

few informational assemblies on LGBTQ issues. This punitive and passive approach to school bullying polarizes a community, instead of creating a united one. Schools need to become a community in action that includes: faculty, teachers, parents, and students, not just administrators problem solving behind closed doors. If schools are looking to create a community, where every identity is celebrated and hetero-social norms are broken, then schools must create a safe space that allows for the diversity that the LGBTQ students and faculty bring. A conversation is a great place to start.

In February at the Cathedral School on the upper west side of Manhattan, members of the LGBTQ Educators Group (led by Ileana Jimenez of Little Red Elizabeth Irwin School in NYC), ISDN (Independent School Diversity Network) , Cometfire (the middle school LGBTQ youth group at the JCC in Manhattan, lead by Scott Quasha and Sharon Ostrowsky) and nearly 100 parents, teachers, administrators, school psychologists, and social workers gathered for the Creating Collaborative Conversations to engage in an open discussion around LGBTQ issues. Panelists presented stories and struggles with LGBTQ students and families in school and shared resources and best practices for creating stronger school communities. Events like the Creating Collaborative Conversations evening help bring the shared goal of creating safe schools for all our students to light.

It is essential to institutionalize the diversity work in school for it to resonate throughout the entire building. The conversations must be happening everywhere and with some planned frequency. Schools have to give language to the experiences of the LGBTQ community and breakdown the expectation of binary gender norms as well. Isolated assemblies are ephemeral; their effects do not last long. Here are some of the best practices shared at the recent meeting.

  • Bring Queer issues/ activism into the classroom all year long.
  • Plan a yearlong study on diversity around gender and sexuality.
  • Train faculty and staff in a multitude of sessions.
  • Bring in speakers and films.
  • Create reading clubs around LGBTQ issues.
  • Teach engagement, not just content.
  • Develop a strong GSA (Gay/ Straight Alliance).
  • Provide lunchtime clubs for LGBTQ students/ faculty.
  • Question the perspective of a text-Who is missing in this story?
  • Point out how rare it is to find LGBTQ topics or characters.
  • Address LGBTQ issues as a community and plan responses to LGBTQ issues.
  • Educate parents, not just the children.
  • Bring in LGBTQ issues into Sex Education.

Discuss the responsibilities of allies of LGBTQ people.

Change starts with awareness of the issues, not with quick fixes. There are no easy answers. John F. Kennedy said, one person can make a difference, and everybody should try. Creating a school community where LGBTQ students and staff feel like an integral part of the whole cannot be the work of a few. Until we have inclusive and diverse communities celebrated in every school, we all need to do the work.

This post was written in collaboration with Dr. Scott Quasha.
Dr. Scott Quasha is a psychologist in New York City and a professor at Brooklyn College.