Schools and communities should be places where students and families feel welcomed safe and supported by all adults responsible for their success and well-being. Many communities and schools across the country are reporting an increase in hate speech and bias, xenophobia, racism, sexism, anti-LGBT, anti-immigrant, and anti-semitism. In the last few weeks alone there have been several reported incidents of hate speech and bias in the media.
This is why the new bill that requires New Jersey middle and high school students to be taught the political, economic and social contributions of notable disabled persons and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people throughout history that Gov. Murphy signed is so important. That is why diversifying curriculum and visibility are so important. This new bill joins earlier bills that created the Amistad Commission, which requires New Jersey schools to incorporate African-American history into social studies curriculum and the Holocaust Commission, which requires New Jersey schools to teach responsibly about the Holocaust. The State of New Jersey is showing students of multiple, diverse and complex identities that they matter and that adults care about their well-being.
Students need to see themselves in what they read, across the curricula, in hallways, classrooms, the cafeteria and playground, and in caring adults, teachers, leaders and policymakers who mirror and reflect our diverse student populations and communities. Studies have shown that creating welcoming inclusive environments, curriculum and policies benefits all student learners and helps them understand the world around them, strengthen critical thinking and respectful behavior. A new report from the Trevor Project showed that one caring adult can save a LGBTQ young persons life and decrease the chance of a suicide attempt by 40%. Visibility matters. Words matter. Actions matter. That is why it is important that schools, communities and elected officials can and should work together to create welcoming inclusive safer schools for all students and families.
Every student benefits when fellow students feel safe and valued and when students learn about themselves and each other. No one should have to work or go to school where they are subject to prejudice, bullying, bias or harassment. No one should feel unwelcome or unsafe because of who they are, who they love or what they believe. It is up to us – all of us– to ensure that we are creating inclusive welcoming safer schools and communities for all students to thrive inside and outside of the classroom. We need teachers, leaders and policy makers that recognize all students diverse needs and challenges and who embrace their role as a leading voice that lifts up and empowers student voices of all backgrounds, faith, origins, abilities, income or identity – especially our most vulnerable and marginalized student voices.
That is why it will take a whole-community approach across a continuum to assist school leaders, educators, stakeholders, parents and students and having courageous conversations around cultural responsiveness, bias and equity. We all have a shared responsibility and an important role to play in maintaining and building a safe, welcoming and affirming learning environment for all our students. Hate speech, bias and discrimination impact all students; that’s why we must call out hate speech and bias whenever we see it or hear it. We must condemn all forms of hate speech and violence and denounce expressions of hate and bias in our classrooms and communities.
Perhaps even more importantly, as adults we must look at how are we modeling behavior, actions and expectations – how are we are modeling and building a positive respectful welcoming environment in which students of all identities are lifted up, and every aspect of a whole-child is valued. Together we can create inclusive safe schools for all students and families.
To the youth of every religion or faith, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, ability or disability, economic status, race or ethnicity, culture, place of origin, home language, immigration status: You matter. You are loved. You are not alone. You are welcome here.
Shannon Cuttle is a nationally recognized safe schools leader, policymaker, and educator. They also are the first openly non-binary person elected in New Jersey and serve on the South Orange – Maplewood Board of Education. The views here expressed are solely their own and do not represent the SOMSD Board of Education or any institution.