The following interview first appeared on the Human Rights Campaign website as a guest post contribution.
As equality and acceptance continue to be top of mind for many, many school leaders continue to ask what else they can be doing to support students who face discrimination within the classroom. Ashton Mota, HRC Youth Ambassador and representative of the LGBTQ community at his school, sat down with Chuck Puga, principal of Smokey Hills High School in Aurora, CO, to discuss ways that other school leaders can help their students.
Ashton Mota (AM): When I started high school, I was nervous because I didn’t know what to expect. Knowing that I was transgender, my school administrator proactively sought me out during the first week of school to casually check in with me and see how I was adjusting to school life. The administrator told me that my only job and goal at school was to be a student, and that I didn’t have to take on the weight of educating faculty and staff about trans inclusion, or being a poster child, unless I absolutely wanted to do so. Needless to say, his response made me feel safe and comfortable, and I was really excited to see many of my teachers asking students to share their pronouns after introducing themselves if they were comfortable with it. It was such a subtle change, but it helped me feel safer and more connected to my school, which has helped me to thrive.
Principals hold significant authority within their schools and can greatly impact students’ well-being on an individual and large scale. As the leader of your school, why do you think it is important to advocate for LGBTQ inclusion?
Chuck Puga (CP): As a principal of a school of 2,400 students and being fortunate enough to have a very diverse population, it is paramount to advocate for all of our marginalized students. Inclusion of LGBTQ students in having a voice in educational opportunity and a safe and inclusive place to learn and express themselves is necessary and long overdue. Unfortunately, people fear what they don’t know. Consequently, the opportunity to learn as a school community regarding LGBTQ issues and using the NASSP Position Statement on Transgender Students as a guide has been powerful for us at Smoky Hill. We are continually working on building a school culture of respect and dignity for all students.
AM: How have your actions positively impacted LGBTQ students and school climate overall?
CP: I believe that showing that we can and will make official name changes and communicate with staff from the time a student enters high school is huge. We want to make sure that students can and will be identified as they choose. This means communicating with staff and parents. We still experience pushback from parents who choose not to recognize that their student uses a different pronoun to identify themselves.
AM: How have the educators and staff at your school responded to your efforts around LGBTQ inclusion? What about parents/guardians? Do you have any suggestions for other principals who fear advocating for LGBTQ inclusion because of the potential for pushback?
CP: Our staff has responded well, but we still have a long way to go and need additional information and training. Our [gay-straight alliance] has been very active and has taken on many leadership roles. We did “She Kills Monsters” for one of our theatre productions—that would not have happened six years ago when I got here. It was awesomely received by our student body and community.
Our parents/guardians have more often than not been great. We still have those who hold some very strong opinions against the LGBTQ community, for various reasons. Our district has been great about inclusion of all students as being a core value. We isolate race and talk about it in our district and hopefully will get to the same point regarding our LGBTQ community.
My suggestion for principals is to ask for clarification and understanding regarding LGBTQ inclusion. Our community is ready for the conversation and dialogue, but I know that some are not. We must be able to advocate for all our students regardless of whether we are scared or not.
AM: What suggestions do you have for school administrators in regards to advocating for safe and inclusive schools for LGBTQ students? Please provide three actions they should take starting at the beginning of the school year.
CP: Action 1—Know your students who have come out. It then gives us as a school the opportunity to learn and partner with them to make change and create our collective future.
Action 2—Communicate with them regarding their needs, wants, and experiences.
Action 3—Communicate with parents. Have them be part of solutions. Don’t be afraid to push back on those who are not open to changing, “the way it has always been done.” The way it has always been done is not good enough.
AM: What resources have you used to guide your advocacy around LGBTQ inclusion?
CP: The NASSP Position Statement on Transgender Students has been the main guide as far as advocacy for LGBTQ inclusion. We are always in search of additional guidance, information, and processes. The more we can learn and dialogue, the better we can be for our students, staff, and community. We also use the NASSP Position Statements on Safe School and Culturally Responsive Schools as well. I have also had the opportunity to attend the Time to THRIVE Conference and be part of a panel. What I learned was amazing and applicable to Smoky Hill!
AM: I imagine you are well aware that LGBTQ youth of color often experience racial discrimination in addition to anti-LGBTQ discrimination. How have you addressed intersectionality as it relates to creating a safe and inclusive school for LGBTQ youth of color, or LGBTQ youth who also have other marginalized identities?
CP: This is a piece I know we have not addressed enough. LGBTQ people exist in every race, religion, ethnicity, and walk of life. However, in our school, our LGBTQ students of color have not come out or expressed themselves as often as our white LGBTQ students have. The first step is acknowledging that this is not a fault of our LGBTQ students of color, it’s that more must be done by myself as a school leader and school staff. Next, we need to identify resources and training so staff understand that we must celebrate diversity AND address all forms of oppression. Using an intersectional framework is key, and continual learning and overcoming our own biases as a staff is essential. Teaching Tolerance created an educator toolkit titled “Teaching at the Intersections,” and the Human Rights Campaign has great data and guidance in their 2018 LGBTQ Youth Survey subreports: Black and African American LGBTQ Youth Report, Latinx LGBTQ Youth Report, and Asian & Pacific Islander Youth Report. In each report, there is a specific chapter titled “At the Intersection: Racism-Related Stress” that I highly recommend to all educators. Lastly, NASSP’s Position Statement on Culturally Responsive Schools may also be helpful for school leaders.
Principals can help their LGBTQ students feel welcome by:
- Respecting pronouns and allowing students to change their names on school records
- Communicating with staff and providing information and training where needed
- Learning from and partnering with students who have already come out at the school
- Communicating with students who are out regarding their needs, wants, and experiences
- Communicating with parents to help them become part of solutions
- Youth Ambassador Initiative
- Project THRIVE
- HRC’s Welcoming Schools
- Youth Well-Being Team
- NASSP Position Statements
Ashton Mota is a high school sophomore and HRC Youth Ambassador. Chuck Puga is the principal of Smokey Hill High School in Aurora, CO.