ELPS Staff Encourage Queer Student Belonging and Inclusion After Hate Crimes – East Lansing Information

Some Hate crime of April 15 committed at the Michigan State University Library against LGBTQIA+ students was felt in the halls of East Lansing Public Schools (ELPS). MSU’s student newspaper, The State News, even reported that some of the seven suspects were high school age. Following the attack, ELPS students and staff at East Lansing High School (ELHS) began demanding that they provide community and support for their queer students.

Diana Sanchez and Steven Neal teach Spanish and English, respectively, at ELHS and are co-advisors of the Social Justice Club. Both were hired by the district seven years ago.

“As a general public,” Neal said, “it has been confirmed that (the MSU hate crime) occurred. But I know for many of our queer youth and our queer staff there was a sense of uncertainty, apprehension, and in some cases even fear because it was so close to us. There was a certain edge, and I know for some queer young people there wasn’t a lot of room to process, ask questions, and get additional emotional support. I know our counselors and advisors did provide emotional and academic support during that time, but as a specific queer community, we didn’t have many opportunities to come together for that purpose.”

“An employee actually approached me,” Sanchez said. “We held an informal staff meeting to at least talk about the situation, acknowledge it and make sure staff are aware of how we will support students moving forward. A school employee simply passed me in the hallway and said, “Diana, I know you do a lot, but I was wondering how we can show our students our support.” I immediately saw the information regarding Salus Center and the MSU Library are putting up signs in the library and I love it because I think what our queer youth and queer employees in situations like this just need is to know that they are seen, supported and appreciated. We just thought it would be a simple and effective way to show members of our community that this is how we feel and that we want to create a safe space at our school for all communities, but especially after a hate crime like this.”

After MSU LGBTQIA+ students were victims of a hate crime, ELPS staff began supporting queer students in the district. (photo file ELi)

With the support and encouragement of students from the Social Justice Club, Sanchez and Neal gave students the opportunity to create messages of support and love for queer students and post them on a wall in a high-traffic hallway.

“For many of them,” Neal said, “just performing in a very busy venue was very well received. Some students came to start a dialogue. It seemed like there was a need to connect with the community and just sitting there and helping the kids make these signs and talking to them about everything, it seemed like there was a stronger, authentic connection between the students and the staff, and that’s something. it was definitely needed to help with the grieving process.”

ELi also spoke with District Mental Health Coordinator Heather Findley and Director of Equity and Social Justice Klaudia Burton about the overall climate among queer students in the district. Findley said students can find support at several places in the district.

“There is a real goal of tailoring support so that the student feels represented,” she said. “You will be more likely to share these fears and concerns with someone who has some personal life experiences or adjacent life experiences. Counselors would come to me as an openly gay staff member and say, “This student is struggling or has been affected by this situation and would feel more comfortable talking to you.” I think that’s really important, whether it’s a specific LGBTQIA+ person or someone they consider a super ally.

“Fortunately, our advising department works really hard to create a safe zone and a safe space for people regardless of identity mark and personal experiences, and I think they are really aware of that if students come forward.”

ELPS Mental Health Coordinator Heather Findley provided support for LGBTQIA+ students in the ELPS district. (courtesy photo)

Burton explained that the ethos of acceptance starts in the district.

“It’s as simple as language,” she said. “Presenting words like, ‘This is a welcoming community and environment’ to (kids) in preschool age. It’s the way we greet our classmates (and) the words we choose in our space and how we talk to friends. Our elementary teachers continue to host morning meetings and carpet talks where they can have family conversations about important topics, such as: What does it mean to be a student in a diverse community like East Lansing? Something like, “Look around, who do you see?” Not everyone looks like you. And of course it becomes richer and more developed as we grow with our students and talk about inclusion, acceptance of diversity and how do we honor that in our spaces? How to defend ourselves if we witness injustice, if we witness microaggressions? We have come as far as our students are leaders (professional development for our teachers) on topics such as microaggressions, macroaggressions, how they can be the main characters and not passive observers in such situations. We do a lot with the curriculum. We are still a long way from where I would like us to be, but we have made great progress in trying to address the level of diversity that exists in curriculum materials, especially at grades K through 5.”

Burton said support may look different for middle school and high school students.

“If students, usually older in age, have family members who are not supportive of them and they begin to question their gender, gender identity, or expression of what they want to do, or even go as far as changing their name or thinking they want to change, and their parents are not supportive, our counseling staff is here to guide them through the process,” Burton said. “We have policies in our district that directly support transgender students, politics 5106. There are legal requirements in this regard that we as a district must comply with.”

ELPS Equality and Social Justice Director Klaudia Burton works to ensure the district is inclusive. (courtesy photo)

“At MacDonald (middle school),” Findley said, “they kind of combined the social justice club and the queer-friendly club, so we have that on many levels… which is great. We know you don’t have to be 17 to start thinking about these things. That’s not what the research says. Students really try to explore these issues within themselves and understand it at a younger age(s). I think the support is really great.”

Findley pointed out that ELPS has a history of inclusion, and the district had one of the first straight gay school alliances in central Michigan back in 1998.

Burton expressed his appreciation for the district school board, saying its support reflects the true nature of the community.

“We have a board that is very steadfast in protecting all students in our district,” she said. “They are very supportive of the initiatives we want to implement. I think a large part of our community has put these people on the board, so no matter what the opposition or whatever comes our way, we are investing within the community to support these people and their platforms, to put them on school boards, knowing that they are these are things that can come up. Things like what it means to have LGBTQIA politics or language in the curriculum or what their stance is on banning books or whatever. “I think it’s at least a symptom of what this community represents.”

Sanchez and Neal hope that something good can come out of the response to the hate crime. Sanchez said the school’s Multicultural Student Achievement Network, which she also advises, will likely devote an episode of its “Humanization Station” podcast to the incident.

“I hope this incident helps spark broader conversations and knowledge about queer identities, experiences and histories,” Neal said. “When we were young and in high school, we didn’t really have the open conversations about gender identity and expression and sexuality that I think are more common now, but I hope this event makes people learn more and question their beliefs more, but we also need to be really aware, as Diana said, we actually live and work in a very accepting and inclusive community, but we also need to realize that not all places are like that. Even here in Michigan, let alone in our country and our world. We also need to remember that as educators and as people who help bring the next generation of people into the world, they may go to places that have different opinions, different levels of understanding, and so we need to know how to deal with that in a way that is respectful and humanitarian”.