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How Schools Can Move Past Tolerance to Affirm LGBTQ+ Students

A school administrator shares how their identity impacts their leadership practice in schools and their community.

June 23, 2021

We asked Matt Hickson (he/him) (ENC '14), Principal at Durham Public Schools, about his teaching experience and advocating for LGBTQIA* students. Hear from Matt below!

Matt is a community organizer turned school leader from Durham, North Carolina. During his time as a corps member, he won the Durham Public Schools Beginning Teacher of the Year Award. He serves on the board of directors for the DPS Foundation and Student U. During his free time, you’ll find him fishing and cheering for the Buffalo Bills.

How have you advocated for LGBTQIA* students in your current and past positions?

As an LGBTQ+ student athlete growing up in public schools in North Carolina, I felt the weight of living in a school community that did not always affirm my full identity. I was the team captain of the football team, where I witnessed heterosexist practices both on the field and in the classroom. Worse, I saw many staff members that did nothing to intervene. 

When I joined Durham Public Schools as a teacher in 2014, I wanted to make sure I took every opportunity to intervene on behalf of justice for all our students. After a year of watching our LGBTQ+ students (and particularly Q-BIPOC students) go without systematic support and protection, I partnered with a group of teachers across the district to create Bull City Schools United (BCSU). Since then, BCSU has trained over 2,000 staff members in districts across the Triangle, pushed to disaggregate data from our student climate survey, and successfully advocated for the adoption of an anti-bullying program across Durham. As part of our training work, Bull City Schools United was tapped to train all principals and assistant principals in DPS. 

I am now part of a team that is building a comprehensive guidance of support for trans students across Durham Public Schools. As trans students (and student-athletes) are under attack by conservative legislators, it is important that school communities actively affirm their identities and acknowledge their full humanity. 

What lessons from the classroom do you bring to your current position?

All educators are teachers at heart. Systems-level leaders must have a lens informed by the relationships built in the liberating process of teaching and learning. Where this process is not liberating for all young people, we should strive to disrupt inequities at play and provide opportunities for justice-centered practice. 

In my current position, I think often about the impact of our policy choices on the classroom experience of youth and teachers in our school system. This has led me to identify opportunities to change student names in our learning management and student information systems. With these changes, students can see their identity reflected every time they log in or look up their grades while teachers can be reminded to honor the identities of our students. In my role as board member for the DPS Foundation, I have delivered training on inclusive practices for LGBTQ+ students to the board and staff while supporting the organization in building an inclusive environment for all staff and stakeholders. 

How can administrators establish and maintain an inclusive environment for LGBTQIA* students?

Bull City Schools United has developed a school self-assessment tool that asks administrators to raise the bar for support of LGBTQ+ students at their school. The first step is to shift our lens from “tolerance/acceptance” toward active affirmation and advocacy for our students. In addition, we ask administrators to consider equity with an intersectional lens, collecting data across their systems and encouraging student voices to be included in the planning process through equity teams. Most importantly, schools can start now to encourage visible allyship for our LGBTQ+ students by encouraging teachers to acknowledge names and pronouns, post a rainbow “ally” symbol, and create practices for restorative justice in their classrooms. While addressing issues of bullying or harassment against our LGBTQ+ students, it is important to note that “zero tolerance” policies are not the solution. Research shows LGBTQ+ students of color are more likely to be criminalized than supported by those policies. School leaders play a central role in building culture and community in their schools. By protecting LGBTQ+ students, and particularly students of color, we can send a message to all that our school environment centers inclusion and justice. These are the schools are students deserve.