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On September 26th, the Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students, a joint initiative of the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, gave its biannual presentation to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. The Safe Schools Program develops state policy, provides training and technical assistance to public schools statewide to help them be safe and inclusive spaces for LGBTQ students, and leads a statewide Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) Leadership Council of students and adult advisors.
Presenters included Kimma, a transgender girl who started high school last month and who said that she never fit in as one of the boys at school. “They were going to running and sports, and I was left behind,” she explained to the Board. “I kind of beat myself up over that.” Still, she always felt that living her life as a boy was not authentic for her. It was like “wearing an ugly sweater” she just wanted to take off. In the seventh grade, she socially transitioned to living life as a girl. “Once I transitioned, and my name was Kimma - she/her, and people were calling me that - it was like that ugly sweater was removed.”
Kimma’s mother, Jodi, credited the support from the Safe Schools Program, as well as to professionals at Kimma’s school, with her daughter’s life turn around. “She’s succeeding, her grades are wonderful, and it’s because of what you have done through this program in the schools,” Jodi told the Board. Members of the Board also viewed a moving video from Kimma’s father sharing his journey.
Three other transgender students also shared their experiences and hopes during the presentation. Jules, a high school sophomore, emphasized the importance of students gaining an understanding of transgender people early on so that they are not seen as “different.” Landen, who graduated from high school last year, shared how important it was that the Safe Schools Program connected him to opportunities to work with other LGBTQ students through his internship with the Department. And Brandon, a current high school student, noted that the support of the Safe Schools Program can truly save lives. “I actually lost of couple of friends to suicide because they didn’t have the support that I did,” he explained to the Board.
Commission member Roger Bourgeois, a former superintendent who was joined by fellow Commission member Susan Rees, spoke about how his son was perceived to be gay starting in the second grade and suffered severe distress from the bullying he faced. Roger said that his son is now thriving, and that his family has experienced firsthand the benefits of the Department’s commitment to this LGBTQ work.
Jeff Perrotti, the Safe Schools Program Director, noted the importance of the Department and Board of Education’s leadership in bringing visibility to LGBTQ students, including with their policy prohibiting gender identity-based discrimination. Perrotti said that the policy is now a national model in advancing the rights of a group that remains largely invisible to the general public.
Board members were also presented with the Commission’s latest policy recommendations, which members of the Commission discussed in depth last week with Acting DESE Commissioner Jeff Wulfson. As he opened the presentation to the Board on Tuesday, Commissioner Wulfson said that the work of the Commission and the Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ students is as important now as it has ever been. Senior Associate Commissioner Cliff Chuang and Associate Commissioner Rachelle Engler Bennett, who oversee the Safe Schools Program at DESE, joined several Board members in voicing how integral the program is to DESE’s work and how fruitful the relationship with the Commission has been.