By: Jennifer Huffman
On a recent Friday, more than 100 New Technology High School students participated in a peaceful sit-in to draw attention to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer/questioning (LGBTQ) issues.
The observation was part of a movement called National Day of Silence in which students across the country paused to call attention to “the silencing effect of anti-LGBTQ bullying and harassment in schools.”
A reported 13 percent of students at New Tech identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, according to June 2014 Healthy Kids Survey. One percent identified as Transgender.
Senior Savannah Simms, a member of the New Tech Gay Straight Alliance (GSA), said the percentage of LGBTQ students is potentially much higher. She helped organize the sit-in at her school to draw awareness to the issues such students face. The students also asked for more LGBTQ training for students and teachers at the school.
Simms said she’s seen LGBTQ students bullied on campus. Simms said that some teachers aren’t aware of how to speak of LGBTQ issues in classrooms, how to avoid invasive personal conversations, or how to deal with a student who comes out as gay. She’s heard homophobic language used at the school, for example, comments such as “that’s so gay” or “faggot.” “My goal was to create the safest environment for our students,” said Simms. “I want everyone to feel as though they belong and are welcome.”
The event included handing out information to parents who dropped their kids off in the school’s parking lot that morning.
“We were hoping it would start conversations at dinner tables and make people feel a lot more comfortable with who we are and how to support what we are doing,” said Simms.
As part of the sit-in, the GSA presented the school administration with a request for three things:
staff training on LGBTQ issues, student bullying and harassment training and an emotional health counselor for students.
New Tech’s interim principal, Kathy Summers, said in a phone interview last week the student requests “are very reasonable. There is money set aside to do staff and student training on the issues” they brought forward.
Some LGBTQ awareness training has already been made available district-wide, officials said.
“We have a commitment to ensuring that all staff and students on our sites feel safe and respected,” said Elizabeth Emmett, director of communications and community engagement at the Napa Valley Unified School District.
“Part of making that happen includes training on different topics. We have done sensitivity training about LGBTQ issues in the past and we will do more in the future. What the students requested already lines up nicely with what we have in place in terms of our plans for trainings,” Emmett said.
On Feb. 11, NVUSD had a training in its district office with Napa’s LGBTQ Connection called “What do you say to ‘That’s so gay’?”
However, trainings and activities held outside the teachers’ work contract hours are optional to attend, said Ivan Chaidez, executive director of achievement & innovation with Napa Valley Unified.
New Tech has one counselor, said Summers. Half of that counselor’s time is spent on academics and the other half on emotional health matters.
A full-time emotional counselor “hasn’t been part of the conversation for next year’s budget,” said Emmett.
“Everyone should be comfortable being who they are,” said New Tech junior Hannah Burhorn. The sit-in was held to stand up “for the right of feeling of safety and comfort of other LGBTQ students,” said Burhorn, who is also a member of the school’s Gay Straight Alliance.
“At New Tech, we have a very respectful community here. It’s all about making sure everyone feels safe and included and part of the school as much as anyone else,” she said.
Ian Stanley is the program director with LGBTQ Connection, which works to increase the ability of community organizations, health services, faith communities, government and businesses to welcome and serve LGBTQ people, according to its website.
Stanley said LGBTQ Connection has presented awareness training at a number of other NVUSD school campuses and at the district, but the New Tech administration “hadn’t yet committed to doing a training with us yet” at the New Tech campus.
“In the NVUSD, there are a lot of good things happening in support of LGBTQ students,” said Stanley. “But there is a whole lot more support needed. Situations arise that not everyone is prepared for.” For example, “Some teachers say they don’t know how to respond when a student says ‘That’s so gay.’”
Other concerns center on appropriately handling the gender identification of students in safe and respectful ways, protecting students’ privacy and when a student reports bullying.
“There are still a lot of things that need to be addressed for them to feel safe,” said Stanley. “The key is discussing and practicing values-based responses before any critical incident happens. It’s clearly an issue that is very important to the students across the county.”
“We have a current agreement with Ian and his folks to provide training for the whole district,” said Emmett. “Generally speaking, it’s much more cost- effective to have a larger site training and invite the teachers there,” instead of having presenters visit each campus individually.
“It’s not about a one-time training,” said Stanley. “If schools want to support students, it’s an ongoing culture shift that needs to happen. It’s important that they get ahead of the game.”