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Exam - Columbia schools look for ways to support LGBTQ students

Ryan Levi/KBIA
One of many cut outs on the "support" bulletin board assembled by Battle High School's student-led Gay-Straight Alliance.

When Liam Theberge, a senior at Hickman High School, heard that the Columbia Board of Education was going to be talking about adding gender identity and gender expression to the District’s nondiscrimination policy last September, he knew he had to be at that meeting. “It was a really big and important topic for me, and I think a lot of incoming students and even current students needed to have their voice there,” Theberge said.

After the Board unanimously approved the addition, Theberge said he saw a great reaction from many teachers. “They're a lot more open over the subject,” he said. “I've had a few who walked up to me and asked about it and wanted to just say thank you to me for talking there and just wanted a bit more education on the subject.”

To provide teachers with that education, the Columbia Missouri National Education Association brought in two trainers from the association’s Human and Civil Rights Division to lead an after school workshop on Wednesday, February 17 called “Taking a Stand: Creating Safe Schools for LGBTQ Students.”

“Our school and our school district are really supportive of LGBTQ students, but of course there's always a learning opportunity for teachers,” said Ginny Lennon, a resource teacher at Hickman High School who helped organize the training. “We figured this professional development opportunity would be one that a lot of teachers would want to have.”

About 20 educators from across the District showed up to Hickman High School’s Media Center to hear trainers Bonnie Augusta and Frank Burger talk about how teachers could create safer school environments for all of their students. Burger has been leading trainings since they started in 2005, and he said teachers want to talk about these issues, but sometimes they don’t know how.

Credit Ryan Levi/KBIA
Bonnie Augusta (left) and Frank Burger (right) lead Columbia Public School teachers in a workshop on creating safe schools for LGBTQ students on Wednesday, February 17, 2016.

“I think the biggest issue I see is they oftentimes lack the resources to understand how to deal with it,” Burger said of teachers dealing with LGBTQ issues. “I wouldn't say that teachers are necessarily anti-LGBTQ, but oftentimes I hear them say, ‘I just don't know how to deal with it. Can you help me and give me the tools that I need?’”

At this training, Burger and Augusta led the teachers through a number of activities designed to have them think about and understand how issues of sexuality and gender play out in their schools and affect their students. They also had the teachers draw up plans with actions to create safer schools, ranging from putting up safe space signs in their classrooms to multiyear activities and policy changes.

Augusta said that Columbia teachers are like many others she’s worked with in that they are interested in how to support transgender and gender nonconforming students. “It's that teachable moment right now, and [teachers are] hungry for that,” she said.

Jessica Kirchhofer works with the District’s Parents as Teachers program, but she attended the workshop for more personal reasons. “I really wanted to see how they explained this to staff members and what the feeling in the room would be,” Kirchhofer said. “I just felt an obligation to be there to show that people do care about this topic.”

Kirchhofer said she learned a lot about the experience of transgender students when a student lived with her after being kicked out of his home. “He presented as male and I think most people assumed he was a boy,” she said of Evan, whose real name she didn’t want to use to protect his identity. “I think many people at his high school knew that he wasn't [assigned male at birth] because every time they read class roll or a substitute teacher was there, they would say, ‘Haley. Where is Haley?’ and he would raise his hand.

“I saw how many times he tried to commit suicide.”

Kirchhofer said she knows that there are many teachers in the District who are strong advocates for LGBTQ students, but she would’ve liked the training to have been mandatory for all CPS teachers and staff. “I think it would've been very helpful for many of [our] teachers.”

Credit Ryan Levi/KBIA
Battle High School students posted who and what they support on a bulletin board assembled by Battle's student-led Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). GSA advisor Kirsten Siegel said it was nice for students to see that they were supported by their classmates.

Kirsten Siegel, a geometry teacher at Battle High School, attended the training as one of the sponsors of Battle’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) student club. Siegel sees the same issues with roll call that Evan experienced with Battle’s transgender students, and was hoping to learn more about the District’s new policy regarding transgender students. She said a lot of faculty she’s talked to are unclear about what the policy means for their classrooms, which leads to continued issues for students.           

“If you're a student in class and you're called he all the time because that's what it says on the roster but you don't identify as a boy, that's rough to have all of your authorities, all of the people you're supposed to look up to as role models not even recognize your individualism,” Siegel said.

According to District spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark, the policy change reflected what the District was already doing to provide appropriate accommodations for students.

Lennon and Greg Kirchhofer, the advisors of Hickman and Rock Bridge High Schools’ GSAs, respectively, both said that curriculum coordinators had met with their student groups this year and asked the students what changes could be made to the curriculum to better meet their needs.

Finding ways to talk about LGBTQ issues in the classroom can be difficult for many teachers, so Burger and Augusta shared video resources and other tips about how teachers could do it. “If I had a study hall, a freshman advisory or an academic lab, I would love to do those kind of activities with [my students] because I feel like that's where it fits in the education system,” Siegel said, “but I don't necessarily feel like it fits in my geometry class.”

Siegel has found small ways to slide these issues into her classroom, like writing word problems that include gay couples. “[My students] were like, ‘Well, why did you do that?’” Siegel said, “and I was like, ‘because sometimes there are gay couples, and so why can't there be gay couples in our word problems?’”

Siegel also plans on talking about pronouns and including them on the About Me worksheets she has students fill out in coming school years just like she would ask if they preferred a nickname to their given name. “You're just trying to get to know them as a person,” she said, “and I think that calling them by the right gender is a huge part of that.”

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