On creating a safe school environment for transgender youth


All students deserve to thrive in their academic endeavors. But for some, the school setting can actually threaten their success.

Many transgender and gender-liberated youth across the country are faced with having to navigate hostile learning environments that limit their ability to stay in school and attentively engage in learning. Fortunately, New York City is leading the nation in developing inclusive school policies that support learning and success for all students. But in order to truly shift us away from the culture of exclusion, all systems need to be engaged.

Safety within New York City schools is monitored and regulated by New York City Police Department’s School Safety Agents. To engage them in nurturing a school learning environment that is healthy for everyone, Hetrick-Martin Institute partnered with the Department of Education to train school personnel on supporting inclusive schools and defining the leadership role of School Safety Agents. School personnel and school safety agents have very different roles but all adults in a school setting are responsible for creating a welcoming environment.

HMI believes that gender occurs on a continuum. Young people, in particular, can have a very expansive understanding of gender roles and expectations. Whereas some embrace the expansiveness of gender, others may be baffled by the notion that a construct that seemed fixed for so long could, in fact, be malleable.

Lots of factors contribute to how we perceive gender, including our values and belief systems. In our work, HMI is committed to ensuring everyone we partner with understands our mission is not to shift values and beliefs but to ensure we carefully examine how those frames impact and inform our responsiveness to the directives put forth by the Department of Education to create inclusive school environments.

In our work with the School Safety division, we have found that most agents crave an opportunity to increase their level of understanding about transgender students' lives and they have genuine concerns around how best to support the safety and success of students. They have not all had the opportunity to interrogate gender constructs and learn language that will be supportive to students. It is not enough to provide directives to personnel about accessing restroom facilities. We need to engage those who sustain our systems in opportunities that can expand their understanding.

When people learn about the societal challenges transgender youth have to navigate to access jobs, succeed in school and find acceptance within their families, hearts and souls are impacted. Experience has taught us that creating partnerships and building capacity are the most effective strategies for ensuring culture becomes inclusive. As a youth-serving provider in New York City with School Safety Agents onsite, we have incorporated them into our community meetings and conflict resolution sessions. We have also worked diligently to model the behavior we as a community expect within our youth space.

Transgender students will only succeed if our efforts are carefully measured and all systems work together toward the same end. Our current political climate requires that all cities that have prioritized the human rights and civil rights of their citizens step up and take a stand. There is nothing simpler than standing for the right of a child to go to school and be safe in that school and the right for children not to fear violence from other children in their school. Adults must ensure all children are free to learn in an environment that honors their humanity.

We see New York City as a beacon of hope that can serve as a model of possibility for other cities across the country.


Lillian Rivera is currently the Senior Director of Advocacy and Capacity Building at the Hetrick-Martin Institute and is a leader in LGBT Youth Development.

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