Education Law Center wants to make schools safer for LGBTQ studentsSeptember 28, 2017 Category: Feature, Featured, Medium, People
LGBTQ students are three times more likely than heterosexual, cisgender students to experience harsh forms of discipline in school and 74 percent face bullying related to their sexuality or gender.
Recent Temple University Beasley School of Law graduate Lizzy Wingfield calls these “troubling national statistics.”
From interning at Women’s Law Project to working as a paralegal in a family law unit, Wingfield has been invested in advocacy law for the past seven years. She’s also one of Stoneleigh Foundation’s new fellows and working with Education Law Center (ELC), a nonprofit striving to reduce some of the barriers to education that LGBTQ and gender nonconforming students face.
One of the prominent issues is school pushout, Wingfield said. This pushout can be direct, via school policies that are restrictive or hostile to LGBTQ students such as strict dress codes based on gender. It can also be indirect, like non-inclusive bathroom policies where students may not face direct suspension or expulsion, but would still feel uncomfortable or unsafe.
Another issue is teachers refusing to use students’ correct pronouns: “Teachers set the tone of the classroom,” Wingfield said. “It would feed into harassment and bullying about gender identity.”
Working with ELC means “having the resources to dig in and see if [the trends] are happening locally as well as nationally,” Wingfield said. She is particularly interested in working with young people who have experienced trauma and helping to ameliorate and prevent further trauma.
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ELC’s main goal is to ensure access to quality public education for all students, said staff attorney and Wingfield’s supervisor Kristina Moon.
"I think we can get to the point where we can make school environments more confirming and an actively positive place."
“When we think about access, we think about vulnerable kids,” Moon said. “This is another lens to look at vulnerable children and the ways in which they might have barriers to having a positive school experience.”
These barriers come in forms beyond enrollment. ELC has advocated for students with disabilities, students experiencing homelessness and English language learners. Another project focused on empowering Black girls in their educational goals.
The climate of schools can be vital to students’ experiences.
“Students don’t attend school in a vacuum,” Moon said. “Kids [may] come into school with unsafe home lives [and] they’re going to come to school needing a lot more support and affirmation to be able to concentrate and be able to excel.”
Wingfield said she feels lucky to have so far worked exclusively with the Philadelphia legal community, including Women’s Law Project, which at the time of her internship was advocating to redefine the existing federal definition of rape.
“Women’s Law Project was at the forefront of the fight,” she said. “It was an early example for me in my legal career at how effective law organizations can be in affecting change.”
The legal community is a collaborative one, too.
“It’s important to reach out to other organizations who have similar priorities so you’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” she said. “It can be competitive in trying to do the same thing at the same time [in other cities] and can be reductive when there’s a lot of work to be done.”
Ultimately, Wingfield hopes to make the educational systems in the greater Philadelphia area to be less hostile toward LGBTQ and gender nonconforming students: “In a positive way, I think we can get to the point where we can make school environments more confirming and an actively positive place to be.”