- Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth
Media Contact for Statement in Response to Allegations of LGBTQ Discrimination at Amherst Regional Middle School
Shaplaie Brooks, Executive Director
In response to concerning recent events at Amherst Regional Public Schools (ARPS), The Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students is partnering with the Stonewall Center of UMass Amherst to provide training to educators, students, and families at the start of the 2023-2024 school year, in consultation with students. In any instances of concerns regarding the safety, wellbeing, and rights of LGBTQ students, we are a resource to Massachusetts communities, and we look forward to building a strong and ongoing relationship with ARPS.
The Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students (SSP), a collaboration between the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), has offered training and technical assistance to public school districts in the state since its formation in 1993. SSP supports LGBTQ student clubs called GSAs and develops student leadership; assists districts with policies and practices that align with state anti-bullying and anti-discrimination laws and guidance on gender identity; and trains educators and staff to understand the needs and experiences of LGBTQ students, interrupt anti-LGBTQ bullying, and incorporate positive representations of LGBTQ people in curriculum.
SSP has long held Amherst Regional High School as a shining example of LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum, as a teacher introduced an LGBTQ literature course as early as 2000. However, the ARPS district has had limited interaction with SSP in more recent times. Although training from SSP is free and available to any public school in the Commonwealth, it is not mandatory, and most schools access our resources just once every couple of years at most. Amherst Regional Middle School (ARMS), for instance, where the reported incidents of discrimination occurred, has not had a documented SSP training since 2009 (although the district could have engaged with another group such as the Stonewall Center). Anecdotally, we are seeing a rapid rate of turnover among educators, counselors, and administrators in Massachusetts, underscoring the need for annual, if not more frequent, training on supporting LGBTQ students. SSP training can be requested here.
We strongly recommend that school districts take a proactive approach to LGBTQ inclusion through frequent training, but also by instituting best policies and practices and systems of accountability to go with them. ARPS’ student handbook mentions LGBTQ identities in the heading of its nondiscrimination policy; however, it does not go into detail about what behaviors it prohibits. Furthermore, in contrast with many other districts such as nearby Northampton, it is notable that ARPS’ anti-bullying policy does not mention LGBTQ students as common targets of bullying who need additional protection. SSP offers technical assistance to school administrators on developing policies that close these gaps and better protect all youth from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. Technical assistance can be requested here.
On a positive note, ARMS has an LGBTQ student club, which is much less common in middle schools than in high schools. Evidence shows that LGBTQ clubs are an important piece of a broader network of support for queer and trans students navigating school, family, and life, and the research shows an increase in younger children identifying as LGBTQ. The Commission has supported several middle schools in establishing new LGBTQ clubs in the last few years, and plans to continue this work, as well as supporting the expansion of clubs at the elementary school level. We also encourage students and advisers of school LGBTQ clubs to attend bimonthly regional meetings of the GSA Student Leadership Council to take advantage of networking, leadership development training, and technical assistance opportunities.
It is worth noting the numerous ARMS parents cited in The Graphic who are supportive of their LGBTQ children. While “parental rights” are frequently cited as a reason to deny affirmation and support to LGBTQ students, there are just as many if not more parents and caregivers who wish to see their childrens’ identities embraced at school. At the Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students, we are most concerned with the rights of students, and we work in partnership with school staff and families to ensure these rights are protected. In the coming fiscal year, we are developing an education, outreach, and advocacy program to increase positive engagement of parents and caregivers of LGBTQ youth.
Allegations of discrimination against transgender students and other LGBTQ students are unfortunately commonplace even in our lighthouse state, while resistance to districts that implement policies and practices of nondiscrimination has been on the rise. Over 40 Massachusetts districts this school year have reported anti-LGBTQ activity, including book challenges, lawsuits, threats of violence, and the banning of Pride flags and other queer and BIPOC symbols (on threat of disciplinary action).
Responding to and investigating these types of challenges and partnering with school districts to resolve them is important work that is time and resource intensive. As the only governmental entity in the state--and in the country--with the expertise to address issues of LGBTQ student protections, the Commission on LGBTQ Youth's resources have been stretched thin. We requested a budget increase over last year to a total of $3.1 million in order to meet the strong uptick in demands for our services.
However, we are disappointed to share that these additional funds were omitted from the Fiscal Year 2024 budget version proposed by the House of Representatives and from the Senate’s current budget draft. There is still time for the Senate to approve a budget that includes a necessary increase for the Commission, and we call upon them to meet this moment and show strong support for LGBTQ youth. In light of the vast needs of school districts across the Commonwealth to ensure our most vulnerable students are equitably protected by state law, we remain hopeful that the final budget approved by Governor Healey will grant the additional requested funds to the Commission on LGBTQ Youth in order to carry out this critical work.
The Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students, a collaboration between the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, provides training and technical assistance to K-12 public school districts, schools, and educators on implementing state laws that impact LGBTQ students, including the state's anti-bullying law, gender identity law, and student anti-discrimination law.
The Commission on LGBTQ Youth is established by law as an independent state agency to recommend and advocate to all branches of state government effective policies, programs and resources for LGBTQ youth to thrive. Founded in 1992 as the first body of its kind in the nation, the Commission has been advocating for LGBTQ youth wellbeing in and out of school for 30 years.