voices of 'change'

Colorado LGBT high school students: validate us

[Updated]Colorado’s patchwork of protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people are often celebrated as the most progressive in the nation. That includes a set of inclusive laws that protect LGBT students from bullying in the classroom.

But for many LGBT students, those laws mean little to nothing if their school leaders, teachers, and peers fail to create a safe environment that respects and honors different identities.

What’s more, three Colorado high school students who identify as gay or transgender told Chalkbeat, they’re sometimes more knowledgeable about the laws that protect them then their educators. And that needs to change, they said.

Chalkbeat interviewed the high schools students at Creating Change, the largest annual gathering of LGBT advocates, hosted by the National LGBTQ Task Force. More than 4,000 LGBT leaders gathered in Denver for the weeklong conference between Feb. 3 and Feb. 8 at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Denver.

Chalkbeat asked the three students what are some of the barriers they experienced that prevented or hindered their learning. Listen to the clips below.

Jonathan Herbst

Jonathan

Jonathan Herbst is no stranger to the “big issues.” As his school’s only out-gay student, he’s not afraid to talk about his sexuality, gender neutral bathrooms, or bullying. But it’s the little things inside Lyons Middle-Senior High that are wearing him down as he nears the graduation line.

Jake Snow

Jake

Choosing to express a gender other than the one assigned to you at birth is a battle against bureaucracy, said Fairview High School student Jake Snow. There’s little room to experiment inside a traditional public school that must follow decades-old rules.

Xander Fager

xander

When Xander Fager began to transition from female to male, the Smoky Hill High School administration was slow to adapt, he said. He was asked to use a gender neutral bathroom at first, instead of the boys bathroom. (Colorado schools, as public places, are required to allow individuals to use whichever restroom serves their self-selected gender.) While he said he was later given access to the boys restroom, Fager has opted to attend the Cherry Creek Option School, a home-school program.

A spokeswoman for the Cherry Creek School District said Fager was was never denied access to any restroom.

The experiences of Herbst, Snow, and Fager are not unique.

According to a 2013 nationwide school climate survey conducted by the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network, 65 percent of LGBT students claimed to hear homophobic remarks in their schools often. Three out of every 10 students said they missed at least one day of school because they felt uncomfortable or unsafe. Nearly 90 percent said they were verbally harassed at least one during the previous year. And 19 percent of students said they were forbidden from wearing clothing that represented their chosen gender

The survey also found LGBT students who experienced higher levels of discrimination based on their identity had lower grade point averages than students who were less often harassed. And students who were harassed more often were less likely to go to college.

Updated: This article has been updated to include a statement from Cherry Creek School District. An official claims Fager was never denied access to the men’s bathroom. 

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.