Risk Factors & Solutions For Supporting LGBTQ Students

by De Palazzo, Statewide Safe Schools Director, Equality Florida

When I was a youth, there was nothing that would aggravate me more than watching someone being treated like a second class person—simply because they were different, whether that difference be pertaining to their size, weight, shoes, hair, belt, how they walked, how they talked, held themselves, or skin color and socio-economic status. In my Catholic school in the early 70’s there was plenty of mistreatment to be found in every corner of our small school building.

As we walk our planet in 2019 and beyond, those reading this blog know as well as I do that this is still taking place regularly in our classrooms, our school buildings, our hallways and our school restrooms. And further still in 2019, the mistreatment is fervent and regularly happening to our transgender, gender nonbinary, lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer students.

In my role as Equality Florida’s statewide Safe Schools Director for the last two years, I have been able to meet and work closely with school district upper level officials across Florida’s sunshine state in 62 of the state’s 67 school districts. I work to give them a much needed wakeup call pertaining to the needs, challenges and resiliency of our LGBTQ+ children in elementary through 12th grade, so that they will work toward both systematizing and structurally operationalizing LGBTQ “best practices” for every one of our students in each of their school districts whether their district be large and urban, medium-sized or rural and small.

I am happy to say, this has been working—but certainly not fast enough. And here’s why.

The most contemporary empirical research, as well as respected national and state surveys regarding at-risk behavior and resiliency for all youth, finds the risk factors for LGBTQ students to be sobering and stunningly escalated. GLSEN’s 2019 School Climate Survey found little improvement in safety, including discriminatory practices, lack of ability to use the appropriate restroom for transgender affirmed children, authentic identity and LGB and transgender students continual absence at school because of feeling unsafe or uncomfortable when in school.
Florida’s latest well respected “Youth Risk Behavior Survey” found that LGB students identified as 15-20% of school populations, with 3.6% of students identifying as transgender. That’s a large number of youth. Yet these Florida students were 4.5 times more likely to die by suicide than their non-LGB peers, and 57% feel sad and hopeless every day, so much so that they do not want to go to school. When I get the platform to speak with upper level leadership I work hard to step into their shoes. And, I remind them that 2019 queer youth, although this is getting a bit better, still regularly encounter tension or conflict at home because of their identity. A number of our places of worship still hold entrenched beliefs about LGBTQ children, and young people hear from the pulpit that it’s not okay to be who they authentically are. Still, in the United States, only 15-18% of school districts present any LGBTQ cultural competency professional development training to their upper level administrators, student services staff and front-line teachers, where gay students often turn first for a sense of belonging and support.

So, what can we do to ensure that this beautiful group of vulnerable, trauma-exposed, yet resilient young human beings stay in school, grow, thrive, have fun and graduate successfully to reach their utmost potential? We ensure state of the art, gold star “best practices” are structurally implemented and operationalized from the top down in our school districts, which extends to the executive level all the way to the hallways and lunchrooms of our multicultural and highly diverse school districts. This would include training for all staff, K-12, including our often forgotten but very student connected cafeteria service workers, bus drivers and aides, along with principals and teachers. Gay Straight Student Alliance Clubs should be supported, active and resourced in every districts’ middle and high schools, and safe space stickers, with safe space professional development being displayed and activated with fidelity and authenticity. These are just a few of the eight to ten critical components that provide an armor of support for this vulnerable and unique population of school children.

In closing, I pose to you that these are, in some ways “the best of times and the worst of times”, with LGBT people having the right to marry, and our young people now able to be out at school in a bolder and prouder manner in elementary, middle and high schools.
Yet, we have much work to do, and pushback across pockets of states from extremists is very real, very palpable and hateful to the point of taking one’s breath away when it is experienced by children. This is happening every day.

Recently, I was in the presence of the Chief Director of Student Services for the State of Florida, Monica Verra Tirado. She said “For every child who has found their voice and is an advocate and “high flyer” for themselves…what about the children that aren’t? It is OUR job to do this for them.”

Thank you in advance for standing on the shoulders of so many others who have always taken care of our most vulnerable children, of whatever background, culture or identity, so that every single one of our LGBTQ children and young adults will continue to be and remain “HIGH FLYERS,” soaring healthily and brightly in 2019 and beyond.

De Palazzo is the Statewide Safe Schools Director for Equality Florida, and was a Community Matters Safe School Ambassadors® Senior Trainer from 2005 – 2016.