A dozen years ago, Anton Schulzki, a teacher at William J. Palmer High School in Colorado Springs, and his students were told the school would not recognize a Gay-Straight Alliance as an official club.
They could meet on school property, but they could not advertise their organization’s meetings on the morning announcements or use school supplies, and Schulzki would not be paid for his services.
In an attempt to protect itself from a lawsuit, District 11 reclassified dozens of other school organizations across the city that had nothing to do with curriculum as “unofficial” clubs.
Ultimately, a lawsuit was filed. And in 2005, Schulzki and his students won official recognition from the school district.
Schulzski, a social studies teacher, is still the faculty adviser for the Palmer student group that creates a safe space for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth, and those trying to figure out their sexual identity or gender expression. On Saturday, he was recognized for his work with LGBT youth by One Colorado, the state’s largest gay advocacy organization.
Chalkbeat spoke with Schulzki this week about his award, his work and his advice for teachers, students and parents.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How are you feeling?
In all honesty, I’m still stunned. I’m incredibly humbled and grateful for the award. I know that the people who had a chance to vote for this award were the youth who are in and were in the GSA — GSTA, actually. This award came from the youth. And that means everything.
You corrected yourself just now. You actually have a Gay-Straight-Trans Alliance. Explain that.
When we started, officially now 10 years ago, we were known as the Gay-Straight Alliance, which had pretty much been the model. And then about three years ago, the kids at Palmer decided they wanted to add the ‘T’ for trans students. That made sense because we had a number of trans students who were a part of the club. That was totally the kids. I just thought it was a wonderful move.
What was the purpose of the GSA 10 years ago compared to the purpose of the GSTA today?
There is a common thread between 10 years ago and today. Back then, it was that first opportunity for students to find a safe place where they could talk to their peers — and occasionally an adult — about the issues they were having. For many of them, they were still closeted LGBT and LGBTQ students. The Q is for questioning.
Adolescence is hard enough, but to be coming to grips with your own sexual or gender identity is hard.
Ten years later, society has become far more open, but there’s still an issue for kids today of parents and family acceptance. There are students who still face those concerns at home. Some students might be out to their friends or some teachers, but not their parents There’s no magic formula for coming out. So, I still think our organization is needed.
What’s interesting is that students are becoming more aware of who they are sooner. I think in particular some of our trans students are finding a place of acceptance sooner.
The other big difference in the 10 years has been a decrease in bullying toward LGBT students. I can’t say that it’s 100 percent gone, because bullying happens in schools. But it’s becoming far less accepted and tolerated. And adults are more willing to step in and say “knock it off.”
What’s the next step in schools becoming more affirming for LGBT students?
While there have been state laws that have put forth the notion that protection is enumerated, there are a bunch of school districts that have yet to tackle gender expression and trans issues. There are still some school districts that have a way to go to be welcoming to those students. It’s going to take strong staff development and parents and students telling school districts, “Hey you have to follow the law.”
What advice do you have for students, teachers, parents who want to start a GSA at their school?
This is the one thing that we learned years ago: For as much as we like to say it comes down to teachers in the schools, it’s really the parents and the students who have to bring the pressure to the schools to say, “Hey, this isn’t something that is needed but something that we want.”
One of the things we know, and research bares this out, is that students who feel welcomed at school succeed at school. If a student can come to school and be affirmed, they’re going to be successful. And what do we want? Successful students.
Parents can’t be afraid to open their mouths. In our case, it took the ACLU to sue the school district. That was a difficult process for the students and parents. But in the end, it was worth it.
What have you learned about teaching from running the GSA?
First you become far more aware of the language you use. At the beginning of the new school year, I ask students how they like to be addressed — for example, Richard might want to go by Rick. But I also ask pronoun preference, he/she/they. Those are the kinds of things students recognize and say, ‘Hey, here is someone who cares about me as an individual.’ It changes the dynamics in the classroom and you become a far more effective instructor when you can build those relationships in the classroom.
What are a few tips for teachers who many not want to start a GSA but want an affirming classroom?
When students fill out information cards at the beginning of the year, ask them their pronoun preference. You don’t have to make a big deal about it. Another thing to do is to just kind of be aware of the students in the classroom. Those kids who particularly seem to be withdrawn: A lot of times they’re going through things at home like coming to grips with whether they are coming out to their parents.
If you don’t feel prepared to deal with it, find a counselor, contact GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian Student Educator Network), contact One Colorado. As I’ve told people, my learning curve has been steep the last decade. And it continues. I’m still learning.
And as I’ve told parents, when they ask, how do I deal with it: Their kids still have to make their bed, take out the trash. That doesn’t change. The same with the classrooms — you have classroom expectations. They have to be on time. They have to raise their hands.
The best thing I did was open my classroom door to students who said, ‘We’d like to have this club.’ That’s what did it for me. It is just this notion that all we have to do is open doors for kids — and they’ll lead us.