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Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students

2021-2022 Commissioner letter to district and school leaders about the Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students

To:Superintendents, Assistant Superintendents, and Charter School Leaders;
and Elementary, Middle, and High School Principals
From:Jeffrey C. Riley, Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education
Date:February 17, 2022

Thank you for your commitment to providing safe and supportive environments for all students, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQ) students. We are proud that Massachusetts is a leader in this regard and that there have been significant improvements over the years in creating supportive school communities for LGBTQ students. As educators, we play an important role in fostering resilience, joy, safety, and positive relationships for LGBTQ students, despite the many disparities that LGBTQ students continue to face. The 2019 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) shows that LGBTQ students are twice as likely to report having been bullied in the previous school year, and more than three times as likely to have skipped school in the past month because of feeling unsafe — as can be seen in the Commission on LGBTQ Youth Fiscal Year 2022 Report (page 8). According to the GLSEN School Climate Survey (2019), schools with supportive adults, inclusive curriculum, all gender restrooms and locker rooms, and strong Gender Sexuality Alliances (GSAs) create safer schools for all students where LGBTQ students are more likely to perform better academically and feel safe enough to show up engaged in their learning.

Creating safe schools for all students is an important part of furthering the Holistic Support and Enrichment and all four themes outlined in my "Our Way Forward " report, and is a core component of the Department's (DESE) priority to strengthen social-emotional competencies, health, and safety and all five strategic priorities . We look forward to continuing this important work with you.

As you are well aware, the pandemic has created significant and unique challenges for students in general and especially for LGBTQ students. A recent report from the Trevor Project indicated that 41 percent of LGBTQ youth said that COVID-19 impacted their ability to express their LGBTQ identity, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth (56 percent). The pandemic has made it challenging for LGBTQ students to fully access spaces that are a crucial support system, like Gender-Sexuality Alliances (GSAs). If your local GSA is in need of support to strengthen its presence or resources, I encourage you to contact the Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students to get connected with regional meetings and other resources. We also encourage you to explore the Department's Promoting Student Engagement, Wellbeing, and Safety (2021) document, with available Power Point slides and eLearning Module, as they highlight ways to promote wellbeing for students particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additionally, I want to remind you of the Department's Guidance on Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity which encourages all schools to provide access to restrooms (including all-gender restrooms), locker rooms, and athletic teams consistent with a student's gender identity.

To assist you in your efforts to create safe and supportive school environments for LGBTQ students, the Department and the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth (Commission) also offer the following:

  1. Information on Federal and State Laws and Policies regarding LGBTQ Students
    The Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students webpage contains information about federal and state laws and policies regarding LGBTQ students, including information related to the Massachusetts Anti-Bullying Law, the Regulations for the Student Anti-discrimination Law, the Guidance on Notifying Parents When a Student Has Been Bullied Based on Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity/Expression, the Guidance on Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity, and the Principles for Ensuring Safe and Supportive Learning Environments for LGBTQ Students.

    Additionally, as a reminder, in 2016 the Department added a third gender marker option in the Student Information Management System (SIMS), and also added it in the Education Personnel Information Management System (EPIMS). The change to SIMS was made in response to a number of Massachusetts school districts expressing the need for an additional gender marker, to include a value of Non-Binary (N). This gender marker is in addition to Female (F) and Male (M), and can be used by individuals who do not identify as just female or male.

  2. Training and Technical Assistance
    The Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students provides districts with free training and technical assistance. Topics that may be requested include building safe and supportive environments for LGBTQ students; meeting the needs of transgender and gender-nonconforming students; the implementation of prevention efforts related to suicide, violence, and bullying; and the reduction of health disparities for LGBTQ students. To submit requests for trainings, please submit this online training request form.

    The program also provides technical assistance which can include phone, virtual, or in-person meetings to help you answer specific questions or workshop issues your school is addressing. Requests are generally responded to within 5 business days. To request technical assistance (TA), please submit this online TA request form.

    Additionally, the Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students offers curricular materials to help schools provide LGBTQ-inclusive lessons. These resources range from hour-long to multi-day lessons, and help students value the contributions of LGBTQ people in history, literature, and other fields. STEM curriculum units are currently in development. "Defending Democracy at Home: Advancing Constitutional Rights," an interdisciplinary Language Arts and Social Studies unit, is available on the Department's Model Curriculum Unit website. Additional curricular materials are available on the Commission's website.

  3. The Massachusetts Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) Leadership Council
    Modeled on the State Student Advisory Council (SSAC) to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Massachusetts GSA Leadership Council informs policy, promotes inclusive learning environments, supports the development of leadership skills, and fosters statewide collaboration among middle and high school LGBTQ students and allies. It is a student-led and adult-supported program, with a curriculum centered on racial and gender equity, and it consists of a state council and five regional councils. All middle and high school students and GSA advisors are welcome to attend bi-monthly regional meetings held from 9am–1pm at local schools across the five regions (Central, Greater Boston, Northeast, Southeast, and Western).

    Because the state and regional council meetings occur during school time, we ask that you support student and advisor attendance with appropriate arrangements for excused absences. For additional information and a complete list of dates, see the Massachusetts GSA Leadership Council.

    In the past year, the GSA Student Leadership Council worked collaboratively with the Department to create a virtual, student-led book club for Department and district staff and students. The inaugural book club discussion was with the book King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callendar, recipient of the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. Department staff were provided training regarding how to appropriately engage with students in this setting, and student voice was a focus in the discussions.

  4. Pronouns
    As you may have noticed, several Department staff include pronouns on our email signatures. We have learned that this is one way to acknowledge that we cannot know a person's pronouns without asking or being informed, and it is a way to signal gender inclusivity to students and families. I encourage you to have a conversation about pronouns with your communities and that you consider making this option available to your staff. You may find helpful this resource on pronouns from the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).

  5. Family Engagement
    Parental/family love and support is an important factor in a young person's well-being. According to the Family Acceptance Project, family accepting behaviors towards LGBT youth during adolescence protect against suicide, depression and substance abuse. As educators, we often have a meaningful role to play in partnering with families to support their children's wellbeing and success in school.

    In addition to reviewing the aforementioned gender-identity related guidance, we encourage you to contact the Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students for technical assistance regarding family engagement.

  6. The Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth
    The Commission advises state government agencies on effective policies, programs, and resources for LGBTQ youth. The 50-member Commission and its staff issue annual policy recommendations, work in partnership with 17 state agencies, and hold community events and listening sessions.

Feel free to contact Kimm Topping (they/them), Program Manager for the Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students at for more information. And again, my heartfelt appreciation for all that you are doing to support students and your colleagues every day.

Last Updated: February 17, 2022

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