Out of the Closet and into the Schools: How the Department of Education Handles LGBT Issues.By NYCLA Education Law Committee

On September 27, 2016, NYCLA’s Education Law Committee hosted a panel discussion, “Out of the Closet and into the Schools: How the Department of Education Handles LGBT Issues.”  Council Member Daniel Dromm (Representative for District 25 and Chair of the Council’s Education Committee), Sebastian Maguire (Council Member Dromm’s Legislative Director), Mohamed Amin (Founder & ED, Caribbean Equality Project), and Colin Schumacher (Teacher at PS 364 the Earth School) served as panelists.  The discussion was an opportunity to analyze some of the challenges that LGBT youth face in New York City schools and the adequacy of the DOE’s response to the concerns of LGBT teachers, staff, and students.

The panelists spoke about the challenges LGBT youth face in coming out and the need for more safe spaces to offer support and community to these students.  They explained that while Gay-Straight Alliances, or GSAs, should be the rule, not the exception, across all of New York City’s public schools, the unfortunate reality is that even where there is interest among students, there often isn’t a staff member in the school community who feels equipped to serve as the group’s advisor, or sufficient funding to pay for that staff member’s time.  They emphasized the need for training and funding for school staff to ensure the creation of a more inclusive environment.

The speakers also discussed the DOE’s failure to adequately address bias-based bullying in schools, and the necessary steps needed to significantly improve school climate under the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA).  According to a recent survey of NYC students, only 22% attended a school with a comprehensive anti-bullying/harassment policy that included specific protections based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity/expression.  Additionally, many school staff members are under the mistaken impression that to make a DASA report will somehow reflect negatively on them or their school and fear consequences for making these reports.  The panelists clarified that educators or their schools will not suffer negatively because of their honesty, and encouraged the use of data collection as the first step to problem solving.

In addition to the need for support of LGBT students, the panelists also spoke about the same need for LGBT educators.  While these individuals are in the best positions to be proud out role models to LGBT youth, they often fear retaliation from supervisors or bigotry from parents and other members of school communities.  The speakers urged the Department of Education to make clear that this kind of discrimination and a culture of fear that closets LGBT teachers will not be tolerated.

Finally, the panelists examined the difficulty in changing school curriculums to place the civil rights struggles of the LGBT community on par with those of other minorities.  In a 2013-14 survey from GLSEN, students in NYC schools reported that they did not have LGBT-inclusive curricular resources, with only 30% being taught positive representations of LGBT people, history, and events, and nearly half (49%) could not access information about LGBT communities on school internet.  While many teachers do take steps to engage their students in meaningful social justice work that pays the same amount of attention to the civil rights struggles of the LGBT community, others may hesitate to deviate sharply from the mandates of supervisors who insist they stick closely to state standards.  The discussion emphasized the importance of expanding culturally responsive curriculums to include not just race and ethnicity but also sexual and gender identity.

Using this panel discussion as a guide, NYCLA’s Education Law Committee submitted written testimony at a public hearing hosted by the NYC Council’s Committee on Education on October 19, 2016.  The hearing centered on bullying, harassment, and discrimination in NYC schools, with a particular focus on protecting LGBT and other vulnerable students.  The Committee’s testimony affirmed the need for more than just access to a gender-neutral bathroom for LGBT adolescents, and encouraged the creation of supportive, inclusive communities that not only condemn bullying and harassment but also recognize and teach students about the LGBT community and its important contributions to society.  The Committee hopes that continued attention to these issues, with help from advocates like Council Member Dromm, will bring about important policy changes to make NYC’s schools safe and supportive spaces for all students.

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