The definition of civil rights within our schools is in the news again and there is another “Dear Colleague Letter.” This time schools are the site of the debate around gender identity. It is clear that schools must play a role in representing opportunity for all and shifting the cultural landscapes that continue to oppress, control and silence some in society. This is not a new concept.
Our schools are a system with extreme responsibilities—responsibilities beyond teaching reading, writing and arithmetic. Schools are a site of socialization, and thus a necessary space for social change. The current issues of sex discrimination, sexual violence, and discrimination based on gender identity remind me of the same social justice movements to de-segregate schools in the 1950’s and 60’s (and even today). I think of that iconic Norman Rockwell painting “The Problem We All Live With”—strong Ruby Bridges—a six year old with determination, caught up in much more than schooling in that walk to school. With this current movement/backlash to legalize discrimination against the transgendered community, we are forcing the same civil rights and social justice battles to be played out in our schools, with our 6 year olds, again.
Maybe the walk to school should not be a symbol of social justice, but it is. As the adults that care for youth, and as the youth that are growing in their own power and voice, we have a duty to make our school systems reflect the basic human rights and principles of our nation. That does not mean that everyone must get along, and it does not mean that no one will feel uncomfortable—but it does mean that we do not sanction discrimination just because some are uncomfortable. I will be watching our schools and the agencies that govern them to see how they respond to this call for social justice. We have done this before with varying levels of success. Inclusion, response, accommodation, and respect should be cornerstones of our schools (and these are the history lessons from desegregation, Title IX and ADA). This moment is no different, and we should be better at realizing the opportunity to get it right this time. Schools are a powerful display of our social norms, and those norms must reflect a belief in liberty and justice for all children no matter how they identify their gender.