Philly principals get an education on keeping LGBT kids safe

Joy Kingwood, right, the new principal of Rhawnhurst Elementary, confers with Gretchen Stewart, left, the new principal of Vare-Washington Elementary school, at a new-principals’ bootcamp. The leaders received training this week on keeping LGBT students safe.

What if a student is transgender and doesn’t want their parents to know?

Why is having your second graders divide up into “boys” and a “girls” lines potentially harmful to children?

In week one of the Philadelphia School District’s bootcamp for new principals, the focus was systems and organization. This week, the 18 people preparing to take over management roles in schools around the city tackled leadership. On Tuesday, they talked about creating safe environments for LGBT students.

With more than half of all gay, lesbian and transgender students nationwide saying they feel unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation and 43 percent saying they feel unsafe because of their gender expression, the discussion feels vital, said Lauren Overton and Michael Farrell, the two veteran principals who led the discussion.

“As school leaders, you have an opportunity to change the trajectory for a child,” said Overton, principal of Meredith Elementary in Queen Village. “That child may not have the most supportive home life.”

The school system in 2016 passed a sweeping policy that protects transgender and gender non-conforming students, requiring schools to allow students to use the bathroom or locker room of their choice and be referred to as the pronoun of their choice, among other things.

All staff members are required to have training on the policy. But in reality, the application can be uneven, said Overton, who remembers some colleagues uncomfortable with the policy saying things like “boys are boys and girls are girls” aloud when it was first explained three summers ago.

The Tuesday session was aimed at translating a piece of paper into practice, said Farrell and Overton, both principals of high-performing elementary schools with a population of transgender and gay students as young as second graders.

Camera icon MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Omar Crowder, left, the new Northeast High principal, discusses his plan for the school during the Philadelphia School District’s new-principals’ bootcamp.

Omar Crowder, the incoming principal of Northeast High, said the school has a long history of welcoming LGBT students.

“It’s our staff that sometimes struggle, especially with transgender students,” said Crowder, who formerly worked as an assistant principal at Northeast. “Our students take the lead here.”

Alexa Dunn, who will lead W.B. Saul High School, agreed.

“Gender is very fluid now,” said Dunn. “When we were growing up, it wasn’t as fluid. Adults can have a harder time relating.”

In an exercise where principals were encouraged to come up with a plan for what they would do if a student was heard using a slur to describe a gay person, Joy Kingwood, the incoming principal of Rhawnhurst Elementary, and Katharine Davis, the incoming co-principal of Harding Middle School, agreed that not addressing the issue was unacceptable.

“I feel like not making a statement is making a statement,” said Kingwood. “We have to be clear that everyone is welcome at our school.”

Camera icon DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Lauren Overton, Meredith principal, conducted training for other school leaders in keeping LGBT kids safe.

Overton nodded.

“We’ve all worked in buildings where one kid says, ‘faggot’ to another, and a staff member doesn’t call them out,” she said.

“People have their private beliefs, but we have to teach teachers, ‘This is what’s acceptable in this building,'” said Liza Potter, a coach working with the new principals.

Explicit in the district’s policy is the belief that any student’s feelings about their gender identity are the most important consideration. If a student comes to the principal saying they wish to identify as transgender, it’s incumbent on you to be sensitive, Overton told the new principals, who read and discussed the policy and role-played situations that might crop up inside their schools.

“I would say, ‘Does your parent know? If not, would you like me to be there to help you tell them? Or do you want them not to know?'” said Overton. In one case, a student fearful for their safety if a parent found out they identified as transgender is known by one name at school, but is called by their legal name around their parent and in correspondence from the school.

“We are going to respect the child’s right to safety,” Overton said. “Make sure that’s really clear to your staff.”

The principals talked about little things they could do to make LGBT students feel more welcome. Davis said she wanted to explore the idea of giving faculty members who want them “safe space” stickers to put in their classroom windows to signify to students that they are welcome to approach with LGBT issues. Prerna Srivastava, incoming principal of Welsh Elementary, talked about ending boys’ and girls’ recess: what about students who are gender nonconforming?

“We do so many things because we’ve always done them that way, without thinking about the impact it has on how kids see themselves,” said Srivastava.

Camera icon MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Prerna Srivastava, left, the new principal of Welsh Elementary, and Meredith Lowe, right, the new principal of Morrison Elementary School, listen intently to one of the coaches at a Philadelphia School District bootcamp for new principals.