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Updated: Report details CA schools failing LGBT students

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Equality California has released its first report card looking at how school districts are educating LGBTQ students.
Equality California has released its first report card looking at how school districts are educating LGBTQ students.  

A groundbreaking report has found that the majority of California's school districts are failing LGBT students.

Despite state laws aimed at protecting LGBT pupils and requiring schools teach about LGBT history, most schools in the state have yet to implement the legislation, according to the report. And the report shows that few school administrators are properly training educators and support staff on how to address bias and bullying based on a student's sexual orientation or gender identity.

The findings come from Equality California's 2019 Safe and Supportive Schools Report Card, which it officially released May 13. A corresponding website detailing the report's findings and results for individual school districts also went live at http://safesupportiveschools.org/.

"Something has to be done to address the needs of LGBTQ+ students in schools," said college freshman Anna Zeng, who came out as queer while a freshman at University High School in the Irvine Unified School District.

EQCA sent the survey to all of California's 343 unified school districts to fill out voluntarily. Less than half — 130 school districts — turned in the surveys despite repeated efforts by the statewide LGBT advocacy organization and the law firm Latham & Watkins LLP, which provided pro bono assistance, to have school administrators participate.

"While certain districts reported they have made great strides, other districts reported that much work remains to be done in their schools," wrote EQCA Executive Director Rick Zbur in the introduction to the report. "Unfortunately, nearly 62% of all California's unified school districts failed to respond to the survey at all."

In a press call Monday to discuss the report, Zbur said it was "deeply disappointing" that so many school districts did not fill out the survey. But he also expressed optimism in seeing many districts improve their scores when the next report card is released in 2021.

"This gives school districts a check list of the things they should be looking at in all areas to help provide a safe and supportive school environment for all kids," said Zbur, adding that, "We know when LGBTQ kids are protected all kids benefit."

Speaking as a public school parent himself, as he has twin boys and a daughter, Zbur said he wants to know, just like other parents, that the school his children attends is "doing everything in its power" to be safe and supportive of every single student it enrolls.

It is believed to be the first time an agency has scored a state's individual school districts on how they are educating LGBT pupils and their straight peers. The hope is that parents, students, educators, and advocates will use the findings to press schools to do a better job when it comes to protecting and educating LGBT students.

"This report will help to create transparency as school districts across our state work to implement best practices, policies and programs to protect and support LGBTQ students," wrote State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond in a letter accompanying the report.


Equality California Executive Director Rick Zbur. Photo: Courtesy EQCA  

Five areas, four tiers
The survey was broken into five areas of concern: school climate, cultural competency training, transgender and gender-nonconforming students, curriculum, and suicide prevention. All of the participating school districts have existing policies prohibiting harassment and bullying, while 82 of the districts regularly collect data about their LGBT students.

But 46 districts do not train their staff about diversity and anti-bias issues, while those that do vary on requiring such training of their employees depending on the grade level they work in.

Just 64 districts have policies in place to change a transgender student's name and gender on school records, such as transcripts, while only 54 said they require teachers and school personnel to use a student's preferred name and gender pronoun. Nearly all the districts, however, allow students to use the restroom that corresponds with their gender and also provide an easily accessible gender-neutral bathroom.

Yet only 10 said they have adopted a policy allowing students to bring a date of any gender to school events or dances like prom, and a mere seven districts said they require all of their schools to celebrate such LGBT holidays like Pride or Harvey Milk Day, which California observes each May 22 on the birthday of the slain gay rights leader elected a San Francisco supervisor in 1977.

While 88 school districts have updated their sexual health curriculum to include discussion of relationships other than cisgender heterosexual couples, seven districts said they still use an optional/opt-in system for their sexual health education. Six districts do the same for their HIV prevention education.

Just 65 districts said they are teaching about LGBTQ history in their classrooms. However, 91 districts have yet to purchase LGBT-inclusive textbooks or teaching materials in order to meet the requirements of the state's FAIR Education Act, which mandates the teaching of LGBT topics in social science and history classes.

The report breaks the school districts into four tiers, with the lowest being those that did not respond. Twenty-two districts, including San Francisco Unified and Visalia Unified in Tulare County, made it into the top tier of "spotlight districts."

In the Bay Area, other districts in the top tier included Alameda, Castro Valley, Milpitas, Newark, Oakland, Saint Helena, San Lorenzo, and Santa Clara.

Another 80 landed in the second tier dubbed "foundational districts," while 28 were categorized as "priority districts" in the third tier. Bay Area districts in the second tier included Berkeley, Dixon, Fairfield-Suisun, Hayward, Martinez, Morgan Hill, Palo Alto, and South San Francisco.

Those in the third tier from the Bay Area included Cotati-Rohnert Park, John Swett, San Jose, and Vallejo City. As for local school districts that did not respond to the report card, they include Antioch, Benicia, Dublin, Emery? (which is Emeryville's school district), Fremont, Gilroy, Livermore Valley Joint, Mt. Diablo, Pleasanton, San Leandro, San Ramon Valley, and Vacaville.

Todd Oto, superintendent of the Visalia Unified School District, said the report card prompted his district to review its policies regarding LGBT school issues.

"We want our school campuses to be as safe and welcoming as they can be," said Oto, adding that his district knows "we have much work to do to improve our schools but we are excited to be a spotlight district."

A fundraising campaign is underway for EQCA to beef up its staffing in order to hire people to work directly with individual school districts to improve their scores and introduce training for their staff. It plans to biennially release new report cards.

"This report card will empower school communities, students, and faculty to make sure districts do their part," said EQCA board member Jeff Freitas, a gay man who is president-elect of the California Federation of Teachers and served on the advisory committee for the report card.

EQCA pinpointed three areas where it felt school districts need the most improvement. It is recommending that LGBTQ-inclusive cultural competency trainings be required for all teachers and school staff; legislation currently before state lawmakers co-sponsored by Thurmond, Assembly Bill 493, would require such training in grades seven through 12.

It wants to see every school district in the state adopt policies requiring transgender students be referred to by their preferred name and pronoun. And it wants to see every school using LGBT-inclusive textbooks or teaching materials in the classroom.

"The report card is just the beginning," said Zbur. "We are hoping this will help us launch programs in school districts across the state."


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