After reading some comments and opinions from those who are disappointed in Niwot High School’s Diversity Day, I would like to applaud Niwot High School for it. The program schedule looked incredible – with discussions about living with cerebral palsy, the obesity epidemic, ageism, autism, and other discussions about religious, ethnic, cultural, and all kinds of other diversity. But two workshops of the forty-seven addressed sexual orientation and sexual identity, and those were the focus of the recent opinion letter under the headline “Niwot High Lost Trust With Diversity Day”. I would like to counter the disappointment expressed in that letter with my own gratitude.
Diversity Day programs in our schools are opportunities for students to learn about people who are not like the American majority. Our country is experienced very differently by religious, ethnic and racial minorities; by those who are economically disadvantaged or homeless; by those with physical or mental disabilities; and by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. It can only benefit students to hear those perspectives, which is exactly what Niwot High School offered with its Diversity Day.
In 2010 the anonymous Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) let us know how badly we are failing our LGBT students right here in the St. Vrain district. Nearly 10% of the 3,210 high school students surveyed identified as gay or lesbian in the survey. Of the students who identified as lesbian or gay, 35% had seriously considered suicide in the past year, 29% had planned it, and 20% had attempted suicide in the past year (compared to 11%, 9% and 4%, respectively, for their straight counterparts). The survey also indicated LGBT students didn’t know where to turn for help. Clearly, avoiding the issue and pretending these students don’t exist is not working. In a climate where LGBT students need to be silent about who they are in order to simply survive school, think how amazing it must have felt to be a closeted gay student hearing their experience discussed and validated at Niwot High School’s Diversity Day.
In the “Niwot High Lost Trust” opinion letter, the academic and instructional value of the event was called into question. I’ve been a high school teacher for fourteen years. Teachers can tell you that if a student feels excluded or unsafe they will have less buy-in to the whole school experience. Lack of buy-in impacts attendance, homework completion, participation in clubs and activities, and other markers which promote academic success. Students without buy-in will drop out of school in higher rates. They will join gangs, turn to drugs and alcohol, practice unsafe sex, contract HIV/AIDS, and to become pregnant. ALL of these things affect student achievement, school success and future success, so educating our students about how to be inclusive of everyone is truly at the heart of academic performance and success in school and in life.
Niwot High is taking brave steps in educating our students and preparing them for a world that includes all kinds of people – including LGBT people. I hope the example set by Niwot High School reaches far and wide.