By David Hanson, Chief Financial Officer and Joanne Lembo, Director of Student Activities of Phillips Exeter Academy (NH)
When admitting students to an independent school, one of the most important questions enrollment professionals must answer is, "How well does this student 'fit' our school?" Admission offices must ensure that the students they admit will transition successfully into their school's culture and climate. Just as importantly, a school's culture and climate can directly impact a student's success. With today's cyber- and in-person bullying, it is imperative that school leadership be united in their support and guidance of those students identifying as LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer).
According to a recent Human Rights Campaign survey, Growing Up LGBT in America, LGBTQ students report being harassed at school--both verbally and physically--at twice the rate of non-LGBTQ youth. Schools all over the country, both public and private, are struggling with addressing these issues. This September, Atlanta will see its first-ever private school designed primarily for LGBTQ youth and teachers. The mission of Harvey Milk High School, a public school in New York City, is quite specific in its wide-ranging support as it aims “to establish and promote a community of successful, independent learners by creating a safe educational environment for all young people.'
Every admission professional should feel a responsibility to ensure that each student enrolled feels accepted and that school is a place all students can feel at home. To get a better idea of how this is being implemented in schools right now, we sat down with two leaders from Phillips Exeter Academy (NH): Joanne Lembo, director of student activities, and David Hanson, chief financial officer, who presented a session at the 2015 TABS Annual Conference entitled "Beyond the GSA--What it Really Takes to Support Your LGBTQ Students on Campus," to discuss their school's practices and how they have adapted to ensure all students feel included.
What LGBTQ-friendly policies has Exeter implemented recently to support LGBTQ students?
JL: Last year, our student council proposed a change to our dress code. They felt that our current dress code was unfair to transgender and gender-expansive students. The faculty overwhelmingly passed the change.
Why are specific policies and processes important?
DH: Policies are essential for two reasons--to ensure consistent and fair application to all employees and students, and also to build awareness and education throughout the entire institution. They set minimum standards and outline aspirational goals for us as a community.
How does Exeter handle transgender students going through the application process?
JL: We currently use our own online system that asks if a prospective student is male or female. Michael Gary, director of admissions at Exeter, realizes this is a shortcoming of our system. We are now having discussions on campus about how we should ask about gender in the application process. It is also important to remember that since children with loving and supportive families are transitioning earlier, we may not know that a child applying to one of our schools is transgender. This is why it is so important to have policies in place that equitably support all students.
What school policies should be implemented to ensure LGBTQ students are supported?
DH: It's not just about an individual school's policies; it's also about understanding the local, regional, and national--even global--frameworks for legal and regulatory issues, including everything from marriage equality to housing and employment non-discrimination regulations. We have a duty to educate and protect our students, and to do so we need to understand the bigger picture.
If specific school policies do not exist and/or need to be updated, what is the proper procedure?
DH: Because Exeter is an independent school, we can implement policies fairly easily, but we also must follow a set governance structure for creating new policies under a framework developed by our trustees in 2010.
JL: In reviewing our own non-discrimination policy, we realized we were missing "gender expression." We brought this concern to the trustees, and they changed the policy at their next meeting. We are fortunate to have an incredible group of trustees who place a high value on equity.
What are some good resources to call upon when reviewing your school's policies supporting LGBTQ students?
JL: I work very closely with the dean of students' office to ensure our LGBTQ students are supported. If I have a question or concern about a current policy, I will speak with them to see what steps we need to take to change it. They also call me with questions about the best ways to support individual students.
How can schools best illustrate that the climate on campus is supportive for all students?
DH: First, assess your climate. Second, be committed to learning from that assessment. Third, be committed to acting on that assessment. Be sure that LGBTQ students are able to be out and proud on campus without fear or shame. Basically, a school's climate improves when an institution is willing to learn about its flaws and gaps and makes a public commitment to fix them.
How can an entire faculty be united in their support of LGBTQ students?
DH: In addition to your faculty, you have to consider everyone associated with your school--staff, volunteers, speakers, donors, alumni, etc. Everyone must be united to support all students.
JL: Show up to events hosted by your school's Gay-Straight Alliance, become an ally, ask what pronouns people use, do not assume that a pronoun in an assignment is incorrect, design problem sets that are gender neutral, and ask for prompts in writing assignments that allow the students to share a time when they were in the minority.
What recommendations would you make to schools' application processes to support LGBTQ students?
DH: Remove gender pronouns. Ensure that your marketing materials and website clearly and consistently represent inclusion and diversity as core values.
Next Steps... what can you do?
- Highlight inclusive clubs and events to prospective families.
- Examine your application process and consider asking students their preferred pronoun rather than their gender.
- Review all marketing materials and website content to ensure diversity is celebrated as a core value.
- Be the change. Review your school's dress code policy, lobby for gender-neutral restrooms, and become a resource for your colleagues, current students, and applicants.
- "A College Guide for LGBTQ Students." Affordable Colleges.com. Online.
- "Toward a Queer-Inclusive, Queer-Affirming Independent School." Independent School Magazine, NAIS, Summer 2014. Print.
- Applying to College as an LGBT Student, Human Rights Campaign. http://www.hrc.org/resources/applying-to-college-as-an-lgbt-student. Online.
- College Guide for LGBTQ Students. Maryville University Online. https://online.maryville.edu/