How educators can create a safe and inclusive climate for all students of the LGBTQ+ community was the focus of an AASA conference session led by Julie Vitale, superintendent of the Oceanside Unified School District in California, on Friday afternoon.
Vitale wants all schools to ensure students of diverse backgrounds thrive and flourish. Her session, “LGBTQ+ Students and Staff Need YOU!” highlighted the importance of ensuring a safe place for all students.
Vitale opened with why pronouns and labels are important in this age of education to make sure students feel respected and seen as a human being despite the abbreviation.
She shared her experiences as a youth living in fear of coming out as gay because the environment where she grew up was not inclusive nor educated on what being gay really meant. She showed statistics of how students' success rates and well-being are negatively affected by non-inclusive or hostile environments within educational climates. About 87 percent of students reported avoiding school functions because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable. In addition, about 58 percent reported hearing homophobic remarks from their teachers or other school staff.
“So, what can we do to help disrupt this bias?” Vitale asked.
The Oceanside schools started by empowering all staff members to stop any kind of negative banter while going about their day-to-day activities. In addition, she said, they've changed forms and applications sent out to the community to incorporate more inclusive language, which allowed participants to identify themselves.
As an educator, Vitale expressed the importance of updating school policies to not tolerate any kind of discrimination against race, gender and sexual orientation.
Vitale said she encouraged her schools to allow for more diversity by creating clubs and organizations such as the Gay Straight Alliance to bring students together in safe and protected places.
She showed a short video of a story of Ryland, a child born as a female but who knew since the age of 2 he was really a boy. As the story progressed, a change of emotion could be experienced in the conference session room. Small sniffles and tears fell from attendees’ faces as the video concluded.
Vitale ended with a heartfelt remark: “Love is love and the children are watching. Let's create those safe and affirming schools for all of our students.”
She added: “Stop the madness, stop the controversy and just support the kids.”
(Isabella Sandoval is a reporting intern with Conference Daily Online and a senior at Judson High School in Converse, Texas.)