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.”

How I Help

Why this high school counselor asks students, ‘What do you wish your parents knew?’

Today, we launch a new series called “How I Help,” which features school counselors, social workers and psychologists across Colorado. It is a companion to our popular “How I Teach” and “How I Lead” series.

Through “How I Help,” we hope to give readers a glimpse into the professional lives of school staff members who often work behind the scenes but nevertheless have a big impact on the day-to-day lives of students.

Our first “How I Help” features Cassie Poncelow, a counselor at Poudre High School in Fort Collins. She was the 2016 Colorado School Counselor of the Year and is one of six finalists for the 2018 National School Counselor of the Year award.

Poncelow talked to Chalkbeat about how she creates a legacy of caring, what teens want their parents to know and why peer-to-peer mentoring is better than a social-emotional curriculum taught by adults.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school counselor?
I was incredibly fortunate to have many powerful educators shape my life in my time as a student, but none did more so than my school counselors. My counselor from high school remains a dear friend and mentor. I knew that I wanted to be a part of what is happening in education and loved the diversity of the school counselor job. They get to collaborate with so many different stakeholders, get to know students in really cool ways and be involved with so many aspects of making change.

Cassie Poncelow

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of.
Three years ago, we noticed that students were dropping out continuously because they were short on graduation credits and tired of taking the same classes over and over again. I worked with a team to create Opportunities Unlimited, which is a dropout recovery program for students ages 17-21 that is focused on GED completion and concurrent enrollment opportunities. A fifth cohort started this fall and the program has graduated 26 students in two years.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?
Our Ambassadors program is in many ways the backbone of our climate and culture at Poudre High School. This program trains 50 upperclassmen to mentor freshmen through a year-long curriculum that includes topics like stress management, suicide prevention and sexual assault. This mentoring model means that every freshman has an ambassador that is connecting with them for almost three hours each month. The ambassadors deliver comprehensive, peer-to-peer education that is far beyond and better than any social-emotional learning curriculum that counselors could facilitate. As the co-leader for this program, I also couldn’t live without the hope that this crew gives me. They are the best part of my job.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school(s) where you work?
I am grateful to work in a place and with people who see the vital role of school counselors and are eager to partner with them. In my time at Poudre High School we have added two new school counseling positions, further demonstrating our school’s belief in the work we do. I have worked at schools in the past that created a lot of systemic barriers to accessing school counselors and I think this was based on a misconception that we were a more frivolous part of services for students.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?
I often ask my students, “What do you wish your parents knew?” What I hear consistently is a plea for them to remember what it was like to be 16: How painful and awkward it was, how boys were all the rage and not getting invited somewhere really was the actual worst.

So, I advise parents to remember that. And remember that a lot of what they dealt with at 16 is even more complicated by the world our kids are experiencing. Social media wasn’t a reality when they were kids and our current students have never known a world where mass shootings haven’t happened often. I know it’s no, “I walked uphill both ways without shoes in the snow,” but this is a scary time to be student — different, but equally hard. Our kids need us to hear them in that. And believe that they can change it.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?
At my core, I think we all thrive on authentic relationships and I do whatever I can to create these with my students. I want each of my students to feel like I am truly in their corner and a champion not only of what they do but more so of who they are. I hope to not only live this, but to model it for my students in ways that inspire them to do the same.

This semester I have a freshman boy who was consistently skipping class (who knew gas station tacos were such a draw?) and failing multiple classes. His “consequence” is that he has to spend a period working on missing work in my office. I also have a slew of seniors who have made my office their home during this fifth hour, many who are excellent students and are just looking for a place to study. They have taken this freshman under their wing and are committed to his success far beyond what I could ever be. They are constantly asking about his upcoming exams, what he needs help with and celebrating his rising grades with him. I think I have built really authentic relationships with these upperclassmen who then remember what it means to feel connected and cared for and are passionate about showing this student just that. I often stress “legacy” to my students and this seems like a clear picture of that.

What is the hardest part of your job?
Kid stuff is hard. I hurt for kids a lot, as I think all educators do. They live lives far beyond our walls and far beyond what we could imagine and ever control. That’s the hardest. Close second would be trying to operate in a system that seems to be driven by folks who aren’t doing the work. I recognize that there are so many moving pieces and would love to have some of the actual “decision-makers” come spend the day in our role and better understand the work we do.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A year ago, I had a student who was really struggling with some significant mental health issues. I knew that we needed to bring in a parent but the girl was very anxious about this idea, to the point where she had literally crumpled up on my office floor. After calling her mom to meet with us, I joined her on the floor of my office to talk more. Her mom walked in shortly after, assessed the scene and sat right down on the floor with us, despite the chair-filled room. This move shifted everything and I was so grateful for her wisdom to be where her kid was at. It was a good reminder to me to do that always: be where kids are at.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?
A lot of my unwinding still includes my students as I announce volleyball games or attend other sporting events or performances. I love these opportunities because they let me see my kids in a different light and remind me how awesome they are. I also spend as much time outside as possible, whether it’s going for a quick hike with my pup or a bike ride. Beyond traveling and reading, I cheer hard for the CSU Rams! Go State!

Big money

Millions in grant dollars will bring more counselors to Indiana’s underserved students

KIPP Indy was one of several schools in the county to receive a counseling grant.

Scores of Indiana schools were awarded private grants that will allow them to bolster counseling services for students, many of whom are lacking help for an increasing portfolio of problems, including fallout from the state’s drug epidemic and basic needs like advice on college applications.

The $26.4 million in grants, decided last month, include six for Marion County districts and charter schools. They were awarded by Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy founded by key players in the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly.

The grants went to 52 school districts and five charter schools, covering about a third of the state’s counties. Based on enrollment, they ranged from about $68,000 to almost $3 million.

Lilly began its push to help schools build better counseling programs last year.

“The response from school corporations and charter schools far exceeded the Endowment’s expectations,” said Sara B. Cobb, the Endowment’s vice president for education. “We believe that this response demonstrates a growing awareness that enhanced and expanded counseling programs are urgently needed to address the academic, college, career, and social and emotional counseling needs of Indiana’s K-12 students.”

As Chalkbeat previously reported, school counselors have been stretched exceedingly thin in recent years, both in Indiana and across the country. On average, each Hoosier counselor is responsible for 630 students, making Indiana 45th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia for counselor-to-student ratios. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of no higher than one counselor for every 250 students.

So far, state-led efforts to expand counseling have fallen short; a bill proposed in 2015 to require a counselor in every school was withdrawn for further study, and the issue hasn’t resurfaced significantly in the legislature since. At the time, cost was the sticking point.

Schools and districts had to apply for the grants and show how they would use the money. Lilly reported that mental health and business partnerships, mentoring programs, improving curriculum and adding in more training for staff were all strategies that grant-winners have proposed.

Initially, 254 districts and charter schools applied, many pointing out how Indiana’s recent opioid crisis has increased social and emotional challenges for students. Counselors have to juggle those serious needs with college and career advising and, increasingly, responsibilities that have nothing to do with counseling, such as overseeing standardized tests.

Because of the level of interest, Lilly is planning a second round of grants, which would total up to $10 million.

“Because the implementation grant process was so competitive, the Endowment had to decline several proposals that had many promising features,” Cobb said. “We believe that with a few enhancements, many of these proposals will be very competitive in the second round of the Counseling Initiative.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Indianapolis Public Schools: $2,871,400
  • KIPP Indianapolis: $100,000
  • Lawrence Township: $1,527,400
  • Pike Township: $1,114,700
  • Neighborhood Charter Network: $68,312
  • Southeast Neighborhood School of Excellence: $99,870

IPS said in a news release that it planned to use the grant money to build counseling centers in each of the district’s high schools, which would begin operating in 2018 after IPS transitions to four high schools. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said counselors are “critical” for students as they prepare to graduate high school and pursue higher education and careers.

“We’re thrilled that the students and families we serve will benefit from this gift,” Ferebee said.