The Other 60 Percent

Districts lag in spelling out protection

Eighteen months after Colorado lawmakers voted to require schools to pass anti-bullying policies that specifically protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students – and four years after passage of a law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation – fewer than a third of Colorado’s 178 school districts appear to have adopted policies that specifically reflect both.

A student is slumped alone in the hallway outside his locker in this black-and-white photo.Those are the findings of a survey completed over the summer by One Colorado Education Fund, a statewide organization advocating for equal treatment for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

“It’s great that the legislature took this first step in enacting a law to protect young people from bullying and harassment,” said Brad Clark, executive director of One Colorado Education Fund. “But it’s disappointing that still more than 60 percent of school districts haven’t done what they need to do to address this.”

The survey obtained results from 148 Colorado school districts. All those not responding were small, remote districts. Of those who did respond:

  • 50 have fully updated all their anti-discrimination and anti-bullying policies specifically to include sexual orientation
  • 48 have done nothing to update their policies
  • 50 have updated some, but not all, of their policies or have failed to specifically enumerate the groups of students granted special protection

Nearly all of the districts that have failed to update their policies are small, rural districts.

But One Colorado found that four of the state’s 10 largest districts – Jefferson County, Denver, Aurora and Douglas County – have updated their policies but have failed to include the suggested model language about sexual orientation.

A question of semantics

Denver Public Schools officials say they believe the district’s anti-bullying policy does comply with state law, but they’re in the process of updating all district policies to ensure sexual orientation is always included among protected classes listed.

What Colorado laws say

“Our updated policy is going to the board of education for first review next month. The proposed language will include sexual orientation, gender identity and transgender status,” said DPS spokeswoman Kristy Armstrong.

Aurora Public Schools officials say they revised their policies in June to reflect changes to the law, but did not feel it was necessary to spell out just which groups are included.

“Because the bullying policy covers all students, it necessarily includes all protected classes … and is therefore compliant with statute,” said spokeswoman Paula Hans.

The Douglas County School District includes sexual orientation among the protected classes in its discrimination and harassment policies, and bullying is included in its definition of activities that can constitute harassment. It even spells out exactly what harassment based on sexual orientation might include. However, the bullying policy itself does not mention sexual orientation, but says “any student.”

And in Jeffco Public Schools, the anti-bullying policy notes that it is prohibited “against any student for any reason,” including those “against whom federal and state laws prohibit discrimination.” Sexual orientation falls into those protected classes.

Advocate says language makes a difference

Clark insists he’s not splitting hairs when he takes school boards to task for not spelling out that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students are included among protected groups.

“Having a comprehensive policy is one of the lead indicators of students reporting a sense of safety,” he said.

Surveys show that comprehensive policies that specifically include sexual orientation among the protected classes of students do seem to impact school culture for the better.

One national study found that 65.7 percent of students in schools with comprehensive policies heard remarks such as “faggot” or “dyke” at school. That compares to 73.7 percent of students in schools with generic policies, and 74.1 percent in schools with no policy.

Colorado’s remaining six largest districts – Adams 12 Five Star, Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, Colorado Springs, Poudre and Mesa County – do have fully inclusive policies in both areas. The Mesa County board adopted its revised policy last week.

Boulder Valley and Colorado Springs, in fact, have gone beyond state requirements and include even stricter language about harassment or bullying based on “gender identity” or “gender expression.”

More districts will be revising policies

Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, says she’s not making excuses for the laggard districts, but she believes many of them are in the process of revising their policies. She said she expects more will be updated in coming months as time permits.

By the numbers
  • One national study found that 65.7 percent of students in schools with comprehensive policies specifically including sexual orientation among protected classes heard remarks such as “faggot” or “dyke” at school.
  • That compares to 73.7 percent of students in schools with generic policies, and 74.1 percent in schools with no policy.

Bullying reports

  • Nationwide, 84.6 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students report being verbally harassed in the past year because of their sexual orientation.
  • Another 40.1 percent of such students report being physically harassed in the past year, and 18.8 percent report being assaulted.

Source: GLSEN School Climate Survey

“Boards are pretty inundated with the needs to create policies,” she said. “And if they don’t have a ‘policy person,’ if it’s the superintendent responsible for drafting the updated policies, that superintendent may be more worried about getting kids picked up, getting teachers in the classroom and getting school underway than about updating their bullying policy.”

She said CASB, which has model policies available for districts to consider and adapt to their own needs, has begun to get more calls from districts in the process of revising their bullying and harassment policies to include the language of sexual orientation. But there’s still some confusion about changes in the law.

“Remember the role of the school board,” Urschel said. “They’re elected to reflect the values of a community, and there are communities who will say their first responsibility is to keep all kids safe. They’ll say a kid is a kid, so why must they list different classes of kids? But (state law) does delineate those classes.”

House Bill 1254, passed in 2011, updated the state’s bullying definition to include any verbal, physical or electronic act or gesture intended to coerce, intimidate or cause harm to a student for any reason, including academic performance or “against whom federal and state laws prohibit discrimination.”

Those laws spell out protected classes of people, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability, race, creed, color, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, ancestry or need for special education services. It made Colorado one of 14 states to explicitly protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.

The bill generated a fair amount of controversy last year, with critics complaining it was overreaching and that such policies were best left to local school districts to decide, without state interference.

In 2008, Senate Bill 200 expanded Colorado’s anti-discrimination law to cover sexual orientation. It, too, was a hot-button topic at the time.

School officials generally accept the need to act

Urschel said that despite the past controversies, she’s feeling no pushback now from school districts. Rather, it’s just a question of priorities:

“Most say they’ve got their policies, and they agree they need to tweak them, but they’ve got other things they have to take care of first. Funding is at the top of the priority heap. But we don’t have people saying they just won’t do it.”

“Most (school districts) say they’ve got their policies, and they agree they need to tweak them, but they’ve got other things they have to take care of first … But we don’t have people saying they just won’t do it.”
— Jane Urschel, CASB

Clark, too, says there’s been no resistance to adopting the sexual orientation language, just inertia.

“At their core, I believe that people who are in education have the best interests of students at heart, and want to ensure that kids aren’t beaten up or harassed. No one wants to see that,” he said. “And what we’ve heard is that districts really are taking at look at their policies.”

He praised CASB, as well as the Colorado Association of School Executives and the Colorado Education Association, for their ongoing assistance in encouraging districts to revise their policies.

Nationwide, 84.6 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students report being verbally harassed, 40.1 percent physically harassed, and 18.8 percent assaulted in the past year because of their sexual orientation. That doesn’t include the numbers of “straight” young people who may be teased or harassed because of mistaken assumptions about their sexual orientation.

‘Gender expression’ as a protected class

Holy Spady, 16, a junior at Palmer High School in Colorado Springs, said she’s grateful for the comprehensive policies in her district, which not only specify sexual orientation but also “gender identity.”

“I’ve seen a decrease in the amount of bullying because there’s greater knowledge about gender identity and expression. More people know about it than ever before, and one of the main reasons is because it’s in the anti-bullying policy.
— Holy Spady, 16

“There are people who identify as ‘gender queer’ or transgender, and people have questions about it,” she said. “People don’t always know off the bat what that is. Before now, there was no vocabulary to define and express their concerns. This creates a sense of empowerment. It gives them the vocabulary to pinpoint a problem and solve it.”

Often, such issues boil down to simply using the proper pronoun, “he” or “she,” to refer to someone whose gender may not be immediately apparent to observers, Spady said.

“Honestly, I’ve seen a decrease in the amount of bullying because there’s greater knowledge about gender identity and expression,” she said. “More people know about it than ever before, and one of the main reasons is because it’s in the anti-bullying policy.

“Now people know what to call it. The bullying regresses because of lot of bullying is just based on ignorance. The more familiar it becomes to you, the less reason you have to criticize it.”

Student Voices

What would these students tell newly trained teachers? ‘Be woke’

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Freedom Prep student Destiny Dangerfield talks alongside Asiah Hayes, Detario Yancey, and Evan Walsh at a panel discussion for TFA Memphis trainees.

Respect for others, being resourceful, and confronting biases are among the lessons four high-school-age students wanted to convey during a panel discussion for future Teach for America participants.

Teach for America Memphis trains recent college graduates and places them in local classrooms for two years, with the goal of developing leaders who will commit to educational equity. Earlier this month, TFA Memphis kicked off its Summer Institute, welcoming 153 new trainees. Created in 2006, the group now has over 400 alumni working in local schools. 

High-schoolers Asiah Irby, Evan Walsh, Destiny Dangerfield, and Detario Yancey shared their personal stories with about 200 corps members, directors, and alumni last week. When these students enrolled in Freedom Preparatory Academy and KIPP Memphis Collegiate Schools, it marked a turning point for them. Both schools are charters that hire many program grads.

“We wanted kids that embody so much of what we hope for for all of our students,” said Athena Palmer, executive director of TFA Memphis. “What were the key moments along the way” in their educations?

Based on interviews and the panel discussion, here’s what the students thought first-time teachers should know:

Tell us you won’t tolerate bullying. And mean it.

Destiny Dangerfield wants to be a federal prosecutor, or a civil rights attorney, or perhaps a performer one day. These are lofty goals for any student, but they once seemed unreachable for Dangerfield. Her father, a musician, packed his bags before she started middle school.

“That took a really huge toll on me because that was when I was starting to be introduced to a whole lot more boys,” she said. “Having him walk out on me did a number on my self-worth and self-image and I saw myself as little to nothing.”

School for Dangerfield was supposed to be a safe haven. But that wasn’t always the case. Sometimes, she said, an act as simple as momentarily stepping out of the classroom could affect a student’s safety.

“In reality, that two minutes could be the difference between a child getting in a fight or being talked about or ganged up on,” she said. “Be articulate that you won’t tolerate bullying of any kind. And show them that that’s not an empty threat and that you mean business.”

A safe community of friends and classmates helped Dangerfield get through school. Now, she wants her circle to learn to use their voices to make change, even though she feels people like her are misunderstood and often neglected.

“I want to see more investments within our city.…” she said. “I feel like Memphis has so much to offer … no one has the chance to see our potential.”

The classroom is where teachers can start to grow that potential. But one of her teachers didn’t, and that sticks with her today.

“I don’t want to be talked to like I’m 2 years old when I’m 17,” she said. “I will respect you no matter what, but I want to feel respected in the process.”

Open up. Everyone is nervous on the first day, including us.

In ninth grade, Evan Walsh listened while a faculty member told his parents, “He’s not up to the academic rigor of this school.” The meeting lasted five minutes, and he left unenrolled.

“When a student is in an environment where they feel like the people around them couldn’t care less about their education or what they do in life or what happens to them, you get the unfortunate situation that a lot of students are in right now,” he said, referring to two of his former classmates who lost their lives to violence in the city.

For Walsh, who spent his life moving from place to place, first times were frequent. Creating a bond with students in awkward moments can create lasting relationships, he said.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Corps members talk to and hug participants Evan Walsh and Detario Yancey after the discussion.

“Don’t be scared,” he said. “We’re all human. We can all be scared. Understand like, we’re just as nervous as you are, especially on the first day.”

With the help of a former assistant principal who had a son in the school, Walsh found his way to KIPP, where his GPA shot from a 2.5 to a 3.6. In May, Walsh graduated summa cum laude, and he was the first from his school to apply for early decision and be accepted into the college of his dreams: Franklin and Marshall in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Still, he thinks of his two classmates and their dreams deferred.

“I’m a strong believer in thinking that violence and poverty is a cycle, and the way to break through some of it is with education,” he said. “I was lucky enough to have family and people around me that recognized the value of education.”

Expect only the most out of us – we’re smarter than you think.

In the rocky years that followed first grade, Asiah Irby found herself caught in a custody battle. Because her mother took care of her, she now wants to return the favor.

“‘That kind of shaped me into the person I am today,” she said. “Even when I’m at my lowest, I still push myself to do my best and be better. I just want what’s best for me and my family.”

When Irby thinks of excellence, she thinks of a poster that was on her English teacher’s wall: “I won’t insult your intelligence by giving you easy work.”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Incoming corps members clap for students during panel discussion.

“Coming into a classroom seeing stuff like that just made me know that he cared and that being in his class, I was safe to just learn and try and fail and succeed,” she said.

But she hasn’t always been so lucky. Irby’s worst experience was when she switched teachers in the middle of the year, leaving her with an F grade in the class. Her new teacher didn’t have high expectations for her.

“He was white and kind of privileged, and he would make comments in class that were kind of racist and sexist,” she said. “I want to be something in life, and I don’t want anybody to tell me that I can’t be anything.”

Irby is now a rising senior at Freedom Preparatory Academy, where she raised her ACT score from a 23 to a 27 in one year, enough to get into highly ranked schools such as Syracuse and the University of Texas. And Irby won’t settle for anything less. Success for Irby means leaving a path that students like her younger sister can follow.

“I want to do what I can to make sure that she does better than I do,” Irby said. “My dream for Memphis is for kids that look like me to get experiences that kids who don’t look like me get.”

Teaching is about developing your ‘mommy instinct.’

At home, Detario Yancey’s parents gave him a stable life. But at his failing elementary school, resources were scant, and Yancey’s grades suffered.

“I felt like I was behind,” he said. “I felt like I had a lot of potential locked up in a door, but somebody had to unlock it.”

Yancey enrolled at KIPP in the fifth grade, eating his lunch during tutoring as he worked to recover his grades. Being a teacher in a school this rigorous requires a kind of finesse and quick wit – almost like a “mommy instinct,” he said.

“You want to make your children feel as safe as possible,” he said. “They may not have that love at home. They may not be feeling that love from their peers. Find a creative way to make them feel loved and safe.”

Now, the recent graduate prides himself on representing his class as president and valedictorian.

“I want to see underprivileged kids like me surpass expectations,” he said. “The system is in place for us to fail. I want to see us live to beat those systems down.”

In the weeks ahead, TFA’s incoming corps members will teach summer school at Memphis Business Academy before receiving their assignments for the new school year.

Yancey left them with one last bit of advice: “Be creative, be intuitive, be socially intelligent – and be woke.”


student activism

Five Chicago student activists on why they will be in your face this summer

PHOTO: Courtesy of Diego Garcia
Diego Garcia outside Trump Tower earlier this week

Trevon Bosley’s brother was murdered while attending band rehearsal at church. Shot from the street while helping a friend with drums in 2006, he was just one of the 471 people killed by gun violence that year in Chicago.

Through a peer youth council at St. Sabina Church in Auburn Gresham, Bosley, 20, became an outspoken student activist, and tonight he will join hundreds of students converging for an annual peace march that starts at the church. Chicago’s tradition of youth activism will be on full display, but the local students are getting a high-powered boost. Joining them are Chicago musicians Chance the Rapper and Jennifer Hudson and former Arizona House Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in 2011 at a public meeting with constituents. There will also be another set of special guests: the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fl., where a February shooter killed 17 students and teachers.

All week long, local student activists have been rallying and some Parkland students have lended an assist. Several staged a sit-in in City Hall on Monday to protest the proposed construction of a $95 million police academy on the West side and call for an elected school board. Others staged a die-in on in front of Trump Tower on Tuesday to commemorate the second anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting.

Chalkbeat sat down with five Chicago student activists to hear why they take action and what they hope to achieve.

"Gun violence isn’t mainly just about mass shootings. These kinds of things happen in Chicago, Baltimore 24/7."Alycia Moaton

East Woodlawn resident Alycia Moaton, 17, attends Kenwood Academy. She’s part of Good Kids Mad City, a new advocacy organization formed by Chicago and Baltimore students. This past Monday, Good Kids Mad City members were central figures in the City Hall sit-in this past Monday.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Alycia Moaton
Alycia Moaton outside City Hall earlier this week

On becoming an activist: I grew up in Oak Park for about 10 years of my life. Then I moved into Chicago. Going to public schools on the South Side, it was like a completely different world. A lot of the students—their first thought is whether or not they’ll be able to go to school that day because they’re worrying about getting shot on the way there. When I got to experience both sides, experience what it’s like to not fear going to school, I could see just how messed up it is.

Starting off around three years ago, I went to a lot of protests and youth summits, and that turned me into wanting to be part of an organization. That’s how I got in touch with Good Kids Mad City. Good Kids Mad City came to be after the Parkland shooting, from the idea that gun violence isn’t mainly just about mass shootings. These kinds of things happen in Chicago, Baltimore, 24/7, and it’s as national as a mass shooting.

What she hopes to achieve: One of my main goals is that [the rally tonight] gets a lot of national coverage. The Parkland students are allowing us to make the narrative about Chicago. I hope people leave with the idea of not treating gun violence as just a local issue, with the idea that this isn’t normal. This shouldn’t be viewed as “Oh, this is just how Chicago is, Chicago is just a violent city.”

The big goal is to have people change their narrative about what gun violence in Chicago is, that it has to be taken way more seriously than just a local issue.

"When people think of Chicago, they think of the most violent city. I hope that they think of it as the home of the young leaders."Diego Garcia

Brighton Park resident Diego Garcia, 16, led 15 local teenagers to the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C. in March. Earlier this week, he participated in the die-in outside Trump Tower. He is also a member of Chicago Strong, the citywide youth group organizing tonight’s rally.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Diego Garcia
Diego Garcia outside Trump Tower earlier this week

On becoming an activist: The parents in my community are immigrants, and so are my teachers and my friends. After Trump became president, they felt like, if they speak up for what they believe in, they’re putting themselves in danger of being targeted by the government.

I decided that if I really had nothing to lose, then I would be the voice for them. I’m a citizen of the U.S., and just being a citizen, I have many rights that a lot of other people feel like they don’t have—the right to voice my opinion, to vote about my future.

After the Parkland shooting, my priest said that he would support me in taking 15 teenagers to Washington, D.C., for March for Our Lives. It was one of the best times that I’ve had in my life, because not only were my peers standing up for what they believe in, but also I knew that I wasn’t alone. There was, visually, all around you, people who cared about you.

What he hopes to achieve: I hope that, after the rally, people realize that we young people in Chicago, we want something to change. A lot of the adults like normalizing the violence. The 14-year-old that got shot, or the adult that was going to the store and got shot for no good reason—no one talks about these small things because it happens so often.

I hope that people’s perspective of Chicago changes, because when people think of Chicago, they think of the most violent city. I hope that they think of it as the home of the young leaders.

"It takes everybody. We need people from every region to contribute so we can get total change."Alex King

Austin resident Alex King, 17, just graduated from North Lawndale College Prep. At North Lawndale, he was a Peace Warrior, a youth ambassador for violence prevention. After the Parkland shooting, he traveled to Parkland to visit student survivors. Alex is also part of Chicago Strong.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Alex King
Alex King on a radio interview

On becoming an activist: It started with me wanting a shirt. At North Lawndale College Prep, we have to wear these button-up shirts with collars, and it’s hot. One Thursday, I was seeing these different shirts, regular long-sleeve shirts. It had “Peace Warriors” going down the sleeve, a peace sign on the back, and I was like, “I want one of those.” Then I also heard that Peace Warriors get pulled out of class sometimes, and I’m like “Yeah, if we can get out of class, for sure!”

After joining Peace Warriors, it got to a point where I felt that family connection—these were some of the people I went to when I couldn’t even go to my own family. I’ve been shot at multiple times and I didn’t go to my family, because I didn’t want to put that burden on their shoulders. I went to the Peace Warriors because I knew some of them experienced the same thing, and it’s also easier to connect with people in your age range.

My nephew was shot and killed on May 28, 2017. Shot twice: once in the back of the head and once in the back. I feel like I would have done something that would have put me in a way worse spot than I’m in now if I didn’t have Peace Warriors. They came to me every day, and were like “We are here for you no matter what.” I was known as the one with all the energy. When those people saw me down, they told me,”‘You were always the one to cheer everybody up, so we have to be here for you, to get you back like that.”

What he hopes to achieve: I want people to walk away [tonight] and believe that change can happen. We might be different in a lot of ways, but we are alike in more ways than we are different. I want people to see the fact that we can’t be independent, if we want to make change across the world, we all have to come together to make this work.

We can’t try change the world with only Chicago, we can’t try to change the world with only Florida. It takes everybody. We need people from every region to put their input on so we can get total change.

"Be smart with campaigns. If you’re gonna march, make sure you’re doing it in a community that can really change something."Trevon Bosley

Roseland native Trevon Bosley is a rising junior at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He joined Bold Resistance Against Violence Everywhere, or B.R.A.V.E., a peer youth council run through the St. Sabina youth program, in 2010. He is also a member of Chicago Strong.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Trevon Bosley
Trevon Bosley at March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. earlier this year

On becoming an activist: On April 4, 2006, my brother was murdered while attending band rehearsal at church. He was outside helping a friend with drums. Someone fired shots at them and he was shot in the shoulder. After that, my parents got in contact with (the Rev.) Michael Pfleger at St. Sabina, and he introduced me to B.R.A.V.E.

The main things that the older B.R.A.V.E. members told me was to be smart with campaigns. If you’re gonna march, make sure you’re doing it in a community that can really change something. They told me to just be effective when you’re planning and strategizing your movement.

A while back [around three years ago], we did a voter registration campaign. The strategic thing was how we planned to tackle violence. We know that we have a lot of gun violence in Chicago, but we have to understand why. We noticed that the elected officials at the time weren’t allocating resources to anti-violence initiatives, and the only way you can get politicians to listen to you is to vote. We identified what the problem was and how to go about addressing it.

What he hopes to achieve: We’ve been doing this for a long time and we’ve been fighting for change in the community for a very long time. Tonight’s rally is going to be bigger because of the Parkland influence. We’ve been fighting in Chicago for a very long time for peace, but only recently has the national media really wanted to cover our everyday shootings. The Parkland influence is giving us the platform, it’s led to our voices finally being heard about everyday shootings.

"I want to make sure that we tell our stories ourselves, and not have social media or the news tell our stories because they always twist it around, and then you’re like: That’s not me."RieOnna Holmon

RieOnna Holmon, 15, attends Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep in Rosewood, and she lives in Woodlawn. She joined B.R.A.V.E in 2017, where she received mentorship from older members such as Trevon. Most recently, RieOnna became the president of B.R.A.V.E.

PHOTO: Courtesy of RieOnna Holman
RieOnna Holman speaking at St. Sabina in March

On becoming an activist: I joined B.R.A.V.E. last summer when I did an internship at the ARK of St. Sabina. I just started going to the meetings and taking part in all of the rallies. I see myself in these children [that I mentor], how I was naïve and didn’t really know anything. Being able to teach them about what is really happening out there really shows me that the youth need to be educated about what’s going on.

What she hopes to achieve: [Tonight,] I want to make sure that we tell our stories ourselves, and not have social media or the news tell our stories for them because they always twist it around and you’re always like, “That’s not me.”

It happens a lot. People will talk about someone they lost, and [media outlets] will turn it around being like, this “x” gang member. But we didn’t tell you that. I know now that I have to actually get out there and tell it for myself, because otherwise what’s out there could not be true or another side of the story.