Bullying is a systemic problem for U.S. schools. Up to one in three American students report been bullied at school, which can create both short- and long-term issues, and new research suggests youth suicide rates are the highest they’ve been since 1960. This problem is especially acute among more vulnerable populations, like transgender students, who report being driven to think about and attempt suicide more frequently than their cisgender peers.
During this National Transgender Awareness Week, we must commit ourselves as educators to doing more to stem this tide. No child should have to spend the majority of their day feeling ostracized, unsafe, or utterly hopeless in the presence of readily available alternatives. Every student — no matter their color, shape, size or gender — deserves to feel safe and at home in their school environment.
Education is for everyone, and that means we’ve got to make sure it works for everyone, too.
Some schools and school districts are already attempting to do so by providing a model for inclusion. All schools in California, Colorado, New Jersey, and now Illinois are required to teach LGBTQ history, and Nevada’s Washoe County School District recently announced that its new elementary and middle schools will have gender-neutral bathrooms. The North Kansas City School District also offers gender-neutral facilities at its elementary schools, sixth-grade centers and high schools, one of which crowned a transgender student homecoming queen.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the reality at every school. A Virginia school district continued to refuse to let a transgender student use the boy’s bathroom, which a federal judge found to be unconstitutional just this past summer. A Georgia school district tried to allow transgender students to use whichever bathroom matched their identity, but wound up reversing its decision citing safety concerns.
When schools either refuse to make inclusivity a top priority — or don’t have the resources to invest in the proper training, programs or facility upgrades — a family may have no choice but to find another educational home. In some larger cities, there might be several good options. However, for students in smaller, more remote locations, there may not be a physical school that meets their needs.
That’s one thing that makes online public school options so important. Their curricula are aligned with state standards, which means online learners will receive the same education as any other public school student. They won’t fall behind their peers. And in some cases, they may even be able to get ahead — many online schools are distinctly focused on getting students prepared for their future careers, offering career technical education (CTE) pathways, plus opportunities for students to earn college credits and even industry certifications early.
Online programs also allow for a measure of self-pacing. This flexibility permits students who may need to take time out of their day to get their mental, emotional and physical health back on track to do so, especially important for individuals who have struggled with feelings of isolation or rejection, or who may have to undergo extensive medical procedures.
June Hernandez’s case is an almost-perfect demonstration of both. After having surgery that required her to use a walker, she was bullied so badly, she left that school to attend Texas Online Preparatory Academy. Not only is bullying no longer an issue, should she need surgery again, she can recover from the comfort of home without having to miss much schoolwork.
“Accepted” is a key word here. We all want to feel it. We all want our children to feel it. And if we really want that to be the case, we have to accept the fact education is for everyone, but no single approach to education works for every student.
Kevin P. Chavous, a former District of Columbia City Council member, is an attorney, author, education reform activist, and President of Academics, Policy and Schools at K12 Inc.