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Mt. Lebanon students propose LGBTQ+ nondiscrimination policy

Lexi Byrom, 18, urged the Mt. Lebanon School Board Monday to adopt a policy to protect LGBTQ+ students in the district from discrimination.

 Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA

Lexi Byrom, 18, urged the Mt. Lebanon School Board Monday to adopt a policy to protect LGBTQ+ students in the district from discrimination.

Editors note: WESA is using only the first names of minors in this story to protect their privacy. During the meeting referenced in the story below, the Mt. Lebanon School Board asked students to provide only their first names when presenting testimony to board members.

During a typical day at Mt. Lebanon High School, freshman student Shanti said it’s not if she’ll hear a homophobic slur, but when. She says it happens so often in the hallways that she doesn’t feel like she can report students.

“I have trouble doing my work. I’m super on-guard in the halls, just looking behind me to see if there’s anyone coming. I have trouble actually feeling safe and comfortable in school in general,” she said.

She and other queer students told the school board Monday night that the slurs and inappropriate comments related to sexuality have created an unsafe and at times hostile environment at the suburban school.

“The flippant use of slurs and confidence of which they’re used shows that [students] haven’t been punished and don’t expect to be,” she told the board.

Nearly 70 people packed the school board meeting Monday to support the students who advocated for increased protections. Lexi Byrom, an 18-year-old senior, said teachers in her school aren’t equipped to address regular microaggressions.

“It really starts to get to you after a while, and it really makes coming to school every day very difficult,” she said. “Getting up and being like, ‘OK, I have to go to this unsafe building for eight hours’ is very difficult.”

Byrom is part of a group of about 10 students who have met regularly since November to develop a policy that would protect LGBTQ+ students and hold students and staff accountable for discriminating against those LGBTQ+ students. They presented a draft policy Monday, and more than 20 students, parents and community members spoke in favor of it.

Fifth-grader Oliver said teachers need to be accountable for homophobic remarks. Second-grader Sophia said teachers rely on students to comfort queer students. Seventh-grader Amber said when her peers called her a freak, the guidance counselor spoke with the offenders, but she was left to deal with the harm on her own.

The policy would require the district to train teachers and staff how to best support LGBTQ+ students, require staff to address students by the name and pronoun that corresponds to their gender identity and provide resources that ensure inclusive practices, including appropriate use of terminology.

The district of 5,500 students is one of the largest and wealthiest in Allegheny County. The surrounding community has experienced a deepening social divide during the past few months, with gender identity and culture wars at the center.

Three elementary-school parents sued the district this summer alleging that their civil rights were violated because they were not given the option to remove their children from classes when a first-grade teacher taught about gender dysphoria and transgender transitioning.

This fall, a federal judge ruled that the parents could pursue the lawsuit. The litigation is ongoing.

Several speakers on Monday referenced the lawsuit as cause for additional student protection.

Like most school districts, Mt. Lebanon has a nondiscrimination policy, but it does not reference gender identity or sexuality. The students’ proposed policy would establish guidelines for the “protection, respectful treatment and equal access to educational programs and activities for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender students.”

Pittsburgh Public Schools approved a similar policy in 2016 that gave protections for transgender and gender-nonconforming students to use pronouns, names and bathrooms with which they identify.

After hearing testimonies in support of the proposed Mt. Lebanon policy for more than an hour, board President Jacob Wyland said the experiences shared by the students would motivate the board to move. He said he didn’t know when the board would take up such a policy for a vote or incorporate the language into policy updates. But he said the board is committed to providing safe and welcoming schools.

“We know that there’s a lot of work to do, but we are committed to doing that work, even when it’s hard. Thank you for refocusing us on that mandate,” he told the room.

The group of students wrote the policy with the help of the Campaign for Our Shared Future, a nonprofit organization that works to support “high-quality K-12 education and preserve access, inclusion and meaningful content.”

Executive Director Heather Harding noted that the uptick of anti-LGBTQ+ policies in schools and elsewhere across the country undermines all students’ ability to learn.

“We know that supportive school environments help not just LGBTQ+ students but all students succeed. That’s why I’m so proud of the families and students that took a stand and made it clear hate has no place in their classrooms and community,” she said in an emailed statement.

As for Byrom, she doesn’t know if she’ll see this policy approved and implemented before she graduates this spring. But it gives her hope, she said.

“I’ve only been out for about two years now, and I really want every person that comes out after me to have the best possible experience that they can and to just get to enjoy school and not be fearful when they come here. To have a space where they can be themselves and grow and learn is really important to me,” she said.

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