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What Student Support Looks Like

HGSE event explores issues surrounding gender identity, race, and student support at the level of the student experience.

Like any other high school girl, Andraya Yearwood has homework and track practice after school. But unlike other high school girls, Yearwood has garnered the attention of the media and a documentary filmmaker. She is a trailblazer, a talented sprinter whose gender transition has exposed the ways in which schools and their policies are ill-equipped to meet the needs of transgender youth.

Last week, Yearwood, her mother Ngazi Nnaji, and her Spanish teacher Lindsay Smolka sat down with HGSE master’s student Ivy Sokol and education specialist Nina Harris of Harvard’s Office of Sexual Assault Prevention & Response to explore issues surrounding gender identity, race, and student support at the level of the student experience. Lecturer Gretchen Brion-Meisels served as the panel’s discussion leader.

Yearwood attends a small high school in Connecticut — a state where policy permits students to compete in athletic events based on the gender with which they identify and not on that assigned at birth. “It is very accepting, but I feel it could be more accepting of other needs and wants,” said Yearwood, citing the awkwardness around her name change when other members of the school community would use her legal name, rather than her chosen name. Though unintentional, it still felt like a setback for Yearwood. “It’s a process, and because of that process it may affect how you learn in school. Teachers also need to see that and understand a student’s situation,” she said.

As a parent, Nnaji found that while the school was accommodating overall, she often found herself initiating contact with the school and providing them with information on the kind of resources Yearwood would need. To better support parents and students, Nnaji feels, schools should be able to provide recommendations and resources for support. In many instances, support can be as simple as having a role model or another student with a similar story. Luckily, Yearwood found support with Smolka, her Spanish teacher and leader of the Gay-Straight Alliance at her school.

“It’s really important that kids can look at [the adults] around them and find something that they identify with, that tells them it’s OK to be a certain way. Teachers need to be their authentic selves,” Smolka said. She has been able to provide Yearwood with a safe space at school and connect with her over a shared sense of searching for identity.

Administrators are often professionals who have worked in education for years and can be set in a particular way of doing things, Smolka said. To support LGBTQ+ students, administrators and teachers need to recognize how their actions influence their students. How they respond to situations and to the actions of others creates a classroom and school culture that can either be welcoming or exclusive. For example, when Yearwood was in middle school, she would use the bathroom in the nurse’s office. Yearwood’s female friends had no issue with her using the women’s room; the teachers were the ones who felt uncomfortable.

“Policymakers need to put the capital ‘P’ people back in policy,” Harris said. “Policymakers can be so disconnected from the voices of people they’re making policy for. They make these grand statements that aren’t backed up by relationships and lived experiences of people in those institutions.”

As a way to remedy to the disconnect between people and policy, Sokol, who has taught in New Orleans and Providence, Rhode Island, suggested that change needed to start with conversation. “[Schools] can really make space for young people and really actually listen to them. Beyond that, they can also honor what they say. If a young person tells you they have a pronoun preference, just use it. If a young person tells you they need a particular thing in a school, find a way to make that happen. I think trusting that young people know things and are telling the truth about their own experiences is, unfortunately, imagining a different world. Schools can do a way better job of leveraging identities as assets,” she said.

The danger in silencing or ignoring voices in a classroom has implications for society beyond the queer and trans community, Sokol said, “because the oppressions that result in violence against queer and trans people also result in violence against every other group in America.”

A common thread that ran throughout the discussion that evening was that of courage — the courage of students, teachers who support them, and advocates. Brion-Meisels identified that theme expressly, recognizing “the ways in which all of the folks on this panel have been pushing back courageously” against sets of norms in schools regarding gender and sexuality in order to better “support students and be our authentic selves.”


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