In recent months, as Anoka-Hennepin Public Schools have struggled with allegations of doing too little to stamp out anti-gay bullying, school administrators in Minneapolis and St. Paul have repeatedly been singled out for having admirable anti-harassment programs. And in relative terms, that might be true.
But tonight, before the new members of the Minneapolis School Board are sworn in, the outgoing board is expected to pass one last major resolution [PDF] committing the district to a much stronger policy regarding harassment and discrimination of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students. The initiative is the outgrowth of a yearlong collaboration between Jessi Tebben, who heads the district’s lauded Out4Good program, and outgoing board member Chris Stewart.
Stewart is particularly tickled that the new policy comes up for a vote tonight, because coincidentally he will chair this last meeting. He recently took a little time off of preparing for life as a private citizen and practicing his gavel-wielding to explain why, with a program most people thought worked just fine, he and Tebben scoured the country for best practices to copy. An edited version of his explanation follows:
MinnPost: Why improve something that was working?
Chris Stewart: Here’s the thing: Nobody is getting it right. If I’m going to be very honest with you, one of the things that I learned this year working on this is no one can be smug about the fact that they’re ahead of the curve. When I asked, what’s the best possible policy scenario that we could have, what would be the best that we could possibly do in this area? It was beyond what we’re doing right now, for sure.
We were not able to know how many kids in our district are the victims of behavior issues because of their identity. We don’t track, so we didn’t know. We still don’t know. We can tell you anecdotally we know something happens. Kids will tell you that. But we just can’t tell you how bad the problem is. No district can. That’s a glaring problem.
You can’t fix what you don’t measure. One of the things that bugs me the most about my kids even is that they’re biracial kids and the school district doesn’t count biracial kids. You have no idea whether biracial kids drop out more than other kids, whether they commit suicide more, whether they get diabetes more or whatnot because we’re stuck with these five [racial] categories and my kids don’t fall in them. That makes my kids invisible to the system.
If I could say anything to those who are trying to pass legislation at the state level is the one thing that always, to me, made what they were doing particularly ineffective is none of it required school districts to track how many identity-driven incidents they were having. One of the reasons why that’s important is you can’t form interventions for things that you don’t understand, that you don’t have a clear idea about.
MP: What’s going to be different going forth?
CS: We’ve corrected the way that we identify in our other policies in terms of the proper way to talk about the students. It mandates annual training that is approved and centralized, meaning you can’t just go out and grab this program and that program and call yourself trained. This centralizes that function and makes it a district-wide, organization-wide accountability factor.
The guidelines address how you interact with students that want to be called by a different pronoun, for example. How you interact with students that are transgender in terms of what type of access should they have to sports teams, to things like the prom. We won’t have a situation where if somebody wants to wear a tux to a prom it’s a big deal if it’s a girl, or if we end up with two prom kings.
Research tells you that as kids are developing their identity, if they have gender-questioning behavior or if they’re gender-nonconforming, there are ways to support them. What you have are a lot of parents who say, “Hell no, you’re a boy, you’re going to be a boy. You’re a girl, you’re going to be a girl.” Some of those kids, when they come to school, want to be called by a different pronoun. Or if they’re a Christopher they might want to be called Kristy.
You will find teachers that will abide by that and some that won’t. The district can now just say, as a rule we go with research so we go with what the child prefers to be called. We don’t make a big deal about it. If the parent then finds out about it and [disagrees], then we have to go with what the parent says.
MP: But the child is no longer dependent on the individual teacher’s feelings or beliefs?
CS: Right. A big part of this to me is examining this idea about public schools being for all kids regardless of their identities. There are things that go on during the school day that only kids know about. Kids, when they go into our buildings during the day, they exist in a student world that isn’t completely accessible by adults. Within that world there can often be a pretty brutal social hierarchy. It really does cause trouble for some kids.
Often, it’s because of their identity. It could be because of the way they look. It could be because they’re poor and they wear bad clothes. It could be because of their size. They have even less protection outside of school, so it’s important for us to do it within the school. Society has gotten its head around race in a much better way than this.
MP: Can you articulate for me the importance of naming the specific kind of harassment?
CS: Absolutely. What you want are for people to get very specific about your situation. In Minneapolis, a lot of times people are more comfortable with us saying “all kids” without specifying what kind of kid. Well, that’s great until you disaggregate the data about what type of experience our kids are having and see that some kids are having a wildly different experience than others.
I think that the silence thing and the invisibility thing — just like biracial kids are this invisible population — you can do more to people that are invisible than anybody else in the general population. So if you don’t get very specific and call things out and call them what they are — which happens to be a gene that I seem to have quite a bit of, actually — I fear that you’re not helping anybody.
MP: How is it that Chris Stewart is chairing the last meeting?
CS: That makes me laugh like a maniac. It’s just a lucky thing. [Outgoing Board Chair Tom Madden] can’t make it. I’m the clerk. I chair all the meetings when the clerk can’t make it. For me, it’s a beautiful thing.