by Kati Weis
Dozens of advocates in support of LGBTQ students and staff pressed the Jefferson County School Board last week to consider and adopt updated anti-discrimination policies.
Recent graduate Madison LaFore is one of those supporters.
As a bisexual student who attended Bear Creek High School, 18-year-old LaFore said she and some friends worked hard to cultivate more understanding and inclusiveness of the LGBTQ community, even starting a Gender Sexuality Acceptance Club, or GSA, to give students a safe space to be open about their identities.
“There was really no one doing a lot for us, nobody wanted to get involved or acknowledge that we exist,” LaFore said.
But when LaFore graduated this year, the high school for the first time permitted club members to wear GSA cords at commencement, signaling official recognition of the club.
While LaFore has been pleased to see the Jeffco school system embracing LGBTQ students, she believes the situation is a different scenario for staff.
“Jeffco is one of the most inclusive districts regarding students, but not teachers,” she said.
Joel Zigman, a transgender person and former music teacher at Leawood and Dutch Creek elementary schools, said administrators asked him to keep his transgender identity private.
“For example, I want to have a safe space poster in my classroom, that says ‘this is a safe space for LGBTQ students.’ If a student asks me, ‘hey why do you have that up there,’ I can say, according to the administration, that I support the LGBTQ community, but I can’t say it’s because I’m transgender,” Zigman said. “The district has told me those are two different things, and I’m like ‘what? That’s ridiculous.’”
Zigman said he felt the district suppressed his ability to express himself openly, to the point he decided not to return next year. He plans to teach private music lessons instead.
“I’ve gotten some really great support, but the hardest part is feeling like I have to be in the closet,” Zigman said. “At the beginning of the year when I introduce myself to my students, I say I’m Jewish, I like skateboarding and playing video games. It also feels very natural for me to say that I’m transgender, and I do all these cool things as an activist. It’s really hard to feel like I have to hide that part of myself when I teach.”
“There was really no one doing a lot for us, nobody wanted to get involved or acknowledge that we exist.”
As a member of the Jefferson County Education Association’s LGBTQ caucus, Zigman and other union members have been working to develop improved protections for LGBTQ educators. Those include updating human resources policies like simplifying name change processes and ensuring all staff are trained to be respectful of LGBTQ students and staff.
Jeffco Public Schools spokesperson Tammy Schiff declined an interview on the matter, but in a statement she wrote that the district has strong policies supporting LGBTQ students.
“This policy is the result of a collaborative process with Jeffco schools and several community partners, students and staff,” Schiff said. “We have taken intentional actions to foster an educational environment that is safe and free from discrimination for all students, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.”
On the issue of faculty anti-discrimination policies, Schiff explained the school district started an LGBTQ Staff Support Work Group, which has been working to collect input and data for a staff inclusivity survey.
“Once the work group has reviewed the results of this survey, they plan to move forward with appropriate initiatives,” Schiff said.
Zigman said he helped launch that work group a year ago when he first approached the district about his concerns with the lack of protections for LGBTQ educators in district policies. But he feels district leaders diluted the initial goals of the work group by changing the survey to include all protected classes instead of solely looking into the issues facing LGBTQ students and staff.
Zigman hopes speaking to the school board last week will bolster the work group’s efforts to further consider the needs of LGBTQ people within Jeffco Public Schools.
“I think the things that we’re asking for will give that work group some leverage,” Zigman said. “We are just trying to take it back into teacher control.”
Kati Weis is a reporter with Chalkbeat/Colorado.
Originally published at Chalkbeat.org.
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