Two local LGBT advocates want to ensure charter schools are safe for kids
In a meeting with Birdville school district administrators a few years ago, David Mack Henderson recalled recently, he told a story of a straight female student and LGBT ally who wanted to start a gay-straight alliance at her high school in the school district just north of Fort Worth.
The principal pushed back against her proposal. But the student refused to be deterred.
During a blood bank drive where organizers handed out “DONATE” t-shirts, she handed out T-shirts reading “DON’T” because she objected to the then-complete ban on blood donations by gay men and men who have sex with men.
The principal stopped her immediately.
The school environment became hostile. She became suicidal. Her parents removed her from the school. She enrolled in another school, run by Uplift Education, a network of 14 charter schools across North Texas.
Since then, “She has flourished,” said Henderson, president of Fairness Fort Worth. “The school became a sanctuary.”
For a straight ally, a new school became a safe place. But not all students are so lucky.
Charter schools and LGBT students
Charter schools have been operating in Texas since 1995. They operate like public schools, but are subject to fewer state laws. The reduced legislation is intended to encourage more innovation and allow more flexibility, according to the Texas Education Agency.
But charter schools are subject to heightened scrutiny when it comes to fiscal and academic accountability.
Charter schools, like public schools, are open to all children, do not charge tuition and do not have special requirements for admission.
In 2014-15, charter schools served 227,827 students in 613 campuses across the state, according to the Texas Charter School Association. Many of those charter schools, however, lack LGBT-inclusive policies.
According to the 2013 School Climate Index published by Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), 79 percent of students in Texas experienced verbal harassment based on sexual orientation and 56 percent were harassed based on their gender identity. Nearly nine out of 10 students heard homophobic remarks or negative remarks about gender identity.
Just under four in 10 students were physically harassed based on sexual orientation, and one in four were harassed based on gender identity.
Rafael McDonnell, communications and advocacy manager for Resource Center, and Henderson want to make sure students in and employees of all charter schools are protected from discrimination and harassment.
“A lot of folks think charter schools are essentially private. They are not. So long as any charter school operates with public funds, they should expect, and even invite, broad community interaction,” Henderson said.
In the 10-county Dallas/Fort Worth area, less than 10 of the 93 independent school districts have some sort of LGBT-inclusive protections. But only the Dallas and Fort Worth districts have fully LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies for students, teachers and staff.
With charter schools popping up in suburban areas, many in districts where there are no LGBT protections, implementing LGBT-inclusive policies may have a competitive edge when it comes to recruitment.
Their efforts show. In 2014, Uplift implemented a robust new anti-bullying policy in collaboration with Henderson and McDonnell. The two advocates are also currently working with Winfree Academy on similar policies.
In addition, McDonnell recently met with the staff of the Texas Charter Schools Association to discuss their nondiscrimination language.
Christine Isett, director of communications for TCSA, confirmed the meeting and said they are looking at additional protections.
“Our legal counsel recently met with representatives from the Resource Center, seeing as TCSA provides model policies to our member charter schools. The representatives from the Resource Center were interested in our policies and if it includes nondiscrimination language, which it does. TCSA is further reviewing our policies for our upcoming summer updates,” Isett said in a statement.
Both men also recently reached out to International Leadership Texas, a network of charter schools promoting leadership skills and numerous opportunities to learn languages.
In multiple emails, Henderson and McDonnell offered to collaborate with ILT officials to ensure all students are protected.
“ILT is opening 10 schools this fall in rather conservative corners of DFW,” Henderson said. “We anticipate they may see a disproportionately large number of applicants from LGBT youth and families seeking sanctuary from less welcoming school districts.
“We aim to lay the groundwork necessary to insure their academic and character development is firmly rooted in both policy and practice,” he added.
On Feb. 15, McDonnell e-mailed ILT Superintendent Eddie Conger, writing that he was “pleased to see the language in your student handbook on gender nondiscrimination and how that applies to LGBT students.”
But, McDonnell noted, ILT could take additional steps ensuring LGBT students and employees are protected from bullying and harassment by, among other things, strengthening the student anti-bullying policy and adding protections for employees. McDonnell concluded by offering to assist ILT officials in those efforts.
On March 9, after not having gotten a response to the first email, Henderson joined McDonnell in a follow-up certified letter to Conger. Angela Marcellus, ILT’s director of student services, replied to their second e-mail on March 17, assuring them their concerns were addressed and thanking them for their support.
But as Henderson and McDonnell saw it, “ILT did not have express, enumerated protections for LGBT youth, not to mention faculty and staff. Without those, what is there to implement and enforce?” Henderson noted.
After another e-mail exchange between Henderson and McDonnell, Marcellus noted the district is looking at their work with other districts. That review is ongoing, but Henderson and McDonnell were not told earlier it was underway.
Dallas Voice was copied by Marcellus on her latest email to Henderson and McDonnell on Thursday, March 31, our weekly press deadline day. Dallas Voice attempted to contact Marcellus that same day, by phone and by email, but she had not replied when the paper went to press.
Henderson and McDonnell said they will continue working together to ensure charter schools have LGBT-inclusive policies.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 1, 2016.