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Column: Every student deserves the best support possible from our public school system

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NYSED releases framework for safe, supportive, and affirming school environments for transgender and gender expansive students

By Andrew Harris

Our public education systems constantly change and adapt to meet the needs of the communities they serve. As our societies change, so must the public school in order to provide the best support and education possible. Over the last short century, our schools have evolved through major changes from a world war, desegregation, a technology boom, and great “coming out” of the LGTBQ community.

During all of these major changes in our culture, community, and public policy, The NYS Department of Education has issued guidance to public schools. This week they issued a new framework on how to best support and educate the LGTBQ community. Educators breathed a sign of relief, as this guidance is essential for many reasons. However, a vocal minority voiced outrage over the guidance, echoing many of the same sentiments we heard when we started desegregating our schools.

Not long ago, our school systems grappled with ending gender and racial discrimination via segregation. At the time, allowing women and any “non-white” race to be fully educated and provided the equal rights as white males was considered outrageous and wrong by many. When the New York State Department of Education released guidance to schools on how to remove physical racial barriers like drinking fountains and bathrooms, some people were absolutely furious. Themes of outrage toward school boards and educators for allowing the racist practices to end is now hard to imagine outside of the white supremesist scourge.

Hindsight is great, and clearly, our history of bringing marginalized groups into the mainstream has strengthened our communities and country. I find it hard to imagine that the United States would be the global superpower today had we not desegregated our schools.

The New York State Department of Education is back at it again, providing schools and educators with guidance during changing times. Just as they provided direction and assistance after desegregation, the state has provided updated guidance on providing support to the LGTBQ student body. This update has given educators more tools to help our more diverse population of students thrive.

The guidance provided is very much needed. 56% of students who are part of the LGTBQ community report harassment at school. The public education system, already an all-hands-on-deck effort to provide an education, needs this guidance. Teachers who work in the public school system are employees, hired to provide the most support and learning possible, not make the rules. The rise of the LGTBQ segment of our population has been quite rapid and let’s be honest, we all don’t understand. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t embrace and integrate with the best intentions as our history instructs.

Many parents seemed outraged that the public school system is approaching this culture shift with due diligence. Last year the outcry focused on litter boxes in schools, which bathroom a student uses, and books with LGTBQ characters. These concerns should remind us all of how wrong those who wanted separate water fountains really were. The folks who tried to remove books and teaching materials that acknowledged the horrors of slavery have been vetted by history as maliciously misguided.

Students who identify as LGTBQ are in need of support, creating real stress for educators. I am sure a similar stress existed when the first African Americans or Native American students began attending public schools. The guidance from the state during those times were crucial to give educators direction and also avoid litigation.

The point of litigation is worth expanding on. A public employee, entrusted with following a maze of regulations already, can get into a heap of legal trouble when they just “wing it.” This latest guidance from the state education department gives all public school principals, teachers, and support staff key information. “The framework provides legal updates and best practices to facilitate compliance with state and federal laws concerning bullying, harassment, discrimination, and student privacy,” according to the NYSED.Gov website. This new guidance expands upon a 2015 document, and we all know that much has changed in eight years. Read the entire NYSDE release.

You might totally disagree with everything that the LGTBQ community is and stands for.

Your religion might dictate that you engage in discriminatory thought and practice against that community.

Carry on, “you believe what you want to believe.” But our public schools are neutral zones, free from religion and our private beliefs. It doesn’t matter if the student is African American, a Buddhist prophet, or transgender. They deserve, and property owners pay big tax dollars toward, providing the best support and education possible.

If you find yourself upset with this new guidance, put the shoe on the other foot. What if your child or grandchild identified with the LGTBQ community? Would you want your child unsupported and ostracized from getting educated and becoming part of society?

That seems akin to refusing to support a multi-racial child or grandchild back in 1962, or refusing to let your daughter attend college in 1923. That decision would have been intentionally hobbling a child’s potential, darkening their future.

The LGTBQ community isn’t going away anymore than the African American or Asian American or Native American community is. Our nation and our communities are stronger because we laid down tired, old prejudices, changed for the better, and reaped massive benefits. Diversity makes the human experience better in every way I can think of.

The New York State Department of Education was overdue with this latest guidance but it has a clear goal: To improve support to students and to give educators some help navigating a changing student body.

Please support that goal, regardless of your personal prejudices.

You can write Andrew a compliment or critique anytime at WellsvilleSun@yahoo.com or make a civil and respectful point on the Wellsville Sun Facebook page.

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