- Certain politicians continue to turn to anti-transgender rhetoric, “Don’t Say Gay” laws, and racist dog whistles to whip up fear and consolidate power.
- These measures are harmful to students and leave educators with unclear guidance—it’s intentional, too.
- NEA offers some guidance to ensure safe and welcoming schools, but educators must follow their districts’ policies.
The start of a new school year often comes with the excitement of what’s to come: Getting to know your new students, teaching them new concepts, and witnessing those aha moments. But for many educators, this school year also comes with some doubt.
The root cause of this doubt? Certain politicians who continue to consolidate power by stoking fear and mischaracterizing what is taught in schools—introducing policies and legislation that limit the ways that teachers can discuss race, gender, and sexual orientation.
These new rules often come with subjective, eye-of-the-beholder language, such as “divisive concepts” or “inappropriate content,” and offer educators little to no guidance. It’s intentional, too, says Paul Castillo, senior counsel and students' rights strategist for Lambda Legal.
“Proponents of these bills … don't want to give any sort of guidance, hoping that the vagueness of the law itself will cause administrators, teachers, and faculty—under the threat of possible litigation from parents—to roll back any discussion that is permissible in classroom by students to talk about themselves [and] … their families.”
Given the wave of book bans, limited discussions about racism and the history of People of Color, and attacks on anti-LGBTQ+ students, NEA offers the following guidance to help promote and build a safe and welcoming school year for all students. For information related to legal issues or questions about specific school district policies or an individual's rights, contact your local or state association and its legal team.
HONESTY IN EDUCATION
If you’re an educator who lives in a state with a policy or law that limits what you can teach in the classroom, check with your local union and state affiliate about exactly what the measure in your state says and how it will be applied.
The laws differ and some have specific safe harbor provisions that explain what type of instruction is permitted. Don’t assume that the way you teach will have to change. In fact, given the narrow terms of the laws, you should assume—unless your local or state affiliate advises otherwise—that the laws do not prohibit age-appropriate instruction aligned to established state standards governing how to teach history, civics instruction, and government classes.
To learn more about your rights and protections regarding censorship and teaching about racism, sexism, and historical prejudice, as well as see what helpful guidance may exist in your state, read NEA’s Know Your Rights FAQs.
YOUR LGBTQ+ STUDENTS’ RIGHTS
Title IX protects students from discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity in schools that receive federal funds. Under the federal law, if an LGBTQ+ student is experiencing bullying, name calling, threats, or physical harm, school officials must address it.
Educators can help to enforce laws that protect students, too:
- Keep a record of the effects these harmful policies and laws have on students.
- Raise your concerns with your union to explore whether it may violate Title IX or other laws, as well as district policies.
- Documenting the effects these measures have on students, such as no longer feeling safe or welcomed, helps to support legal challenges.
Students also have free speech rights at school. Generally, schools cannot censor student speech unless there is reason to think that it will substantially disrupt school activities or infringe others’ rights.
When students across Florida, for example, organized walkouts in response to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ “Don’t Say Gay” bill, they protested during their lunch periods to keep from disrupting learning time.
Not only do students have the right to protest, but they continue to have the right to organize, form GSAs with an educator sponsor, and wear affirming messages on their t-shirts in public schools—just like other student organizations.
Just remember: Students have rights, too, and these harmful state laws “cannot supersede the federal rights, the U.S. Constitution, and federal statutes that are available for [students],” explains Castillo of Lambda Legal.
OTHER WAYS TO PROTECT EDUCATORS AND STUDENTS
Educators can work for change as union members, members of a community organization, or as constituents to stand against state lawmakers and school board members who push a political agenda.
Speak out at school board meetings. And remember, your speech and activism are most protected when you’re speaking up as a citizen on a matter of public concern or in concert with other union members. This means your speech is generally protected by the First Amendment when you are speaking outside of work time and to your community or the public about the importance of teaching inclusive concepts or in a certain manner (e.g., teaching by way of inquiry to engage students and prompt critical thinking).
Another way to advocate—given the upcoming midterm elections—is to join other activists in supporting candidates who are committed to safe and supportive schools and advance equity for all students.
To see which candidates for elected office have committed to supporting public education and student opportunity, visit NEA’s Education Votes website.
It’s important to note that many school districts across the country continue to hold affirming policies that welcome and support all students. And for those districts that don’t, it’s important for educators to check their district policies. (Educators are agents of their districts who must abide by their rules.)
Here are other helpful resources:
- Learn more about workplace protections for LGBTQ+ educators, as well as the rights of your students, with NEA’s Safe Schools for Everyone: What educators should know about LGBTQ+ Rights.
- Get free lesson plans and resources to help students develop the skills to interact in a diverse world with greater respect, empathy, and understanding at GLSEN’s Educator Resources website.
- Go to Lambda Legal's Help Desk for information and resources related to discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, and HIV status.
- Find out what’s happening in state legislature and boards of education with GLSEN Navigator, which provides information on the policy landscape, experiences of students, and resources on how to advocate for positive school transformation that benefits all youth, including LGBTQ+ students, in K-12 learning communities.
- Track state election laws and policies and more with the Movement Advancement Project’s Democracy Maps.
- Track state and local laws and policies that aim to censor instruction with UCLA Law School’s CRT Forward Tracking Project.