SLCSD must address anti-LGBTQIA-plus bias

Five local teens participated in a community discussion on gender bias at the Saranac Lake Free Library on Monday, sharing deeply personal stories of harassment, bullying and physical attacks they and their peers have faced at school. The school district’s response so far leaves a lot to be desired.

The five teens who spoke at Monday’s forum showed extraordinary bravery. As anyone who has been bullied knows — whether it was for being part of the LGBTQIA-plus community, for one’s race or the size of one’s body — speaking up is not easy. Sometimes it feels easier to bear it on your own than to share your story and face further ridicule or, perhaps worse, be faced with the feeling that your pain doesn’t matter to those who are meant to look after you. In a small town, it can be even harder.

“We’re speaking for the people that got silenced,” one of the teens said on Thursday.

We applaud these students for their admirable courage and strength.

Unfortunately, rather than acknowleding the students’ experiences and promising solutions, SLCSD administrators instead — whether intentionally or not — seemed to spend more time on Wednesday wrongfully casting blame on the students’ parents, denigrating the students’ stories as “how they perceived it” and making excuses for staff members who may have contributed to their pain. It’s understandable that administrators would want to stand by their staff, but there was a way to do that without largely dismissing the teens’ constructive criticism because of their age or because of their passionate delivery.

To put it plainly, this is not a good look.

Time and again, we see this same cycle play out. A person — whether that be an adult or a child — criticizes an institution or a person in a position of authority. That institution may respond by attempting to discredit the person who had the critique, attack “the media,” deny any possible wrongdoing or share a platitude and wait for the criticism to go away. Or the institution can choose to respond with understanding, genuine compassion and corrective action.

Four years ago, when Saranac Lake’s Class of 2020 valedictorian, Francine “Frannie” Newman, spoke bluntly about the anti-Asian racism she faced at SLCSD in her valedictory address, SLCSD Superintendent Diane Fox responded: “It was obvious from Francine’s opening statement that she had a message to share, it was going to be a hard message to hear, and it was going to require me to do some serious self-reflection … Then Francine stepped up to the microphone and called me out. She said, ‘What about me? What are you doing to mitigate the inequality I face as a member of a minority group in a small town in the North Country?’ She’s right. What am I doing? … Like people all over the world, I, too, am reflecting on the society in which we live and what role I can play to make it a better place for everyone.”

The difference in response then and now is stark. That the school’s leaders this time led with defensiveness speaks to a guilty conscience.

These students, those who came before and those who will come after, all deserve to feel safe and protected in this school district. The district having made advancements through its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion efforts and that those efforts are not progressing fast enough for students to see the fruits of those efforts can both be true. It can be true that the majority of SLCSD staff are supportive and also that there are some who aren’t. It can be true that most students are kind when met with someone different from them; it can also be true that some aren’t so kind. It can be true that punishments for bad behavior are happening and that those punishments aren’t enough to effect change.

Real progress starts with trying to look at things from another person’s point of view. Rather than continue to flash to defensiveness, we urge Saranac Lake school administrators to put personal feelings and emotions aside and hear what the students are saying. They have been hurt. They want to feel safe in school. They want to feel seen. They want not only for adults in their lives to do the work to understand and respect who they are, but they want to see conditions at school improve. Then ask yourselves: What, beyond what we’re already doing, can we do to make that happen? How can we help?

The panel and the forum’s co-hosts were clear that this problem is not Saranac Lake’s alone. School board member Joe Henderson hit the nail on the head: There is a “culture of active hostility” toward these students because of their identities, he said, both in the public and among this country’s political leaders.

The Saranac Lake Central School District can’t change society. But school leaders have the power to make meaningful changes now that can change the culture within the school district for the better. That starts with listening rather than downplaying students’ truths. That begins with showing that the district is not only committed to speaking against discrimination, but acting against it. Publicly.

Change sometimes happens slowly. When you grow up in a world where LGBTQIA-plus stories are not being shared widely, where the LGBTQIA-plus culture is largely underground, it can take time to understand a world where those stories are visible and the people telling them are being freed from the shame of being themselves.

Fox expressed concern on Wednesday that the students’ criticism will mean staff may step around the DEI work or step back and not keep pushing it forward. If students speaking up is a deterrent for a staff member, we’d argue that employee wasn’t committed enough in the first place.

“We need to do better,” SLCSD school board member Nancy Bernstein said. We agree.

Ultimately, despite any one person’s beliefs on the matter, there are now laws and policies in place to protect all students and those should be enforced fairly, with as much transparency as possible.

On Thursday, some of the teens said they don’t expect anything to improve. They believe their concerns will get “swept under the rug.”

Superintendent Fox, SLCSD school board members and administrators: We believe you are good people with good intentions.

You can help. You can make change. You can lead the way. Don’t sweep students’ concerns under the rug and dismiss them. We urge you to prove these students wrong. We urge you to draw the line. It may be uncomfortable, but it’s the right thing to do.


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