DCPS is winning praise for recent steps it has taken to change the school environment for LGBTQ students, according to a recent piece in the Washington Blade.

Andrew Barnett, executive director of SMYAL (Sexual Minority Assistance League) commended the Office of Youth Engagement and health and wellness chief Diana Bruce for forming a LGBTQ steering committee and reaching out to students, family and staff in a series of listening sessions. The committee has been discussing steps to change the culture in D.C. schools, including more training for teachers and administrators and establishment of an LGBTQ School Liaison Program The school system has also started DCPS LGBTQ Facebook page.

“The Office of Youth Engagement at DCPS is showing great leadership in their work to make the system safer and more affirming for its LGBTQ students and other constituents, and SMYAL has appreciated being a part of the effort,” Barnett told the Blade. “We’ve also been very impressed by the way in which Diana Bruce and her team have engaged so many different important stakeholders throughout the process.”

The 2007 DC Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) shows that 7.1 percent of high school males and 9.9 percent of high school females (charter and DCPS) self-identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual. About a third of that population reported being bullied at least once on school property the previous year.

Minutes of the listening sessions and steering committee meetings, posted on the DCPS site, show that the school system has a long way to go. In one meeting, parents told school officials that teachers and principals don’t always know how to respond to LGBTQ concerns, including homophobic comments by students or other staff. Teachers often encourage traditional gender roles ( ie. pink is for girls; boys are supposed to toughen up). One attendee said a teacher told a preschool girl that “two girls can’t get married — that would be silly.”

Chancellor Kaya Henderson, in an Aug. 18 article in the MetroWeekly, acknowledged the problem. “Fear, intimidation and harassment led to truancy, poor grades and depression. It puts young lives at risk and destroys our community. I have seen the grim statistics and heard too many tragic stories. And I pledge to parents and family members: I will not tolerate discrimination of any kind in D.C. Public Schools.”