An Introduction to Welcoming Schools: Letter of Introduction
The headline in the New Bedford Standard-Times on Feb. 2, 2006, was only the beginning: "New Bedford Gay Bar Attack Wounds 3." The evening before, an 18-year-old man walked into a local lounge and, after confirming that it was a gay bar, began striking patrons with a hatchet and firing a gun, leaving three wounded.
At that time, I was the assistant superintendent for special services in the public school system for New Bedford, Mass. Several weeks after the incident, I attended a public forum on homophobia, hate speech and violence, and heard speaker after speaker tell moving stories about growing up "different" from others in our community. Many mentioned having experienced name-calling, bullying, threats and physical violence.
The common theme in all of their stories was that schools were not welcoming places for them.
The forum was a personal wake-up call for me because I had never known about the pain and feelings of isolation experienced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. As an educator, I knew that our school system had an obligation to ensure that students were prepared to acknowledge and respect the diverse world in which they lived.
An anti-bullying program would not be enough. The young man who entered the local lounge — a former student in our school system — did not ask if he had walked into a sports bar or an Internet bar, he asked if it was a gay bar. I knew that to keep students safe in school, the program would have to address all aspects of difference by acknowledging all types of student and family diversity.
The forum inspired the genesis of a youth and schools subcommittee to continue working on these issues. I volunteered to represent the public schools because I felt strongly that we had an obligation to take well-planned steps to ensure that all students would be safe in our schools. The subcommittee met monthly, set goals and searched for school intervention programs that would address bullying, name-calling, gender stereotyping and violence — for all students, but with specific attention paid to LGBT students and LGBT-headed families.
After several months of trial and error in our search, Kim Westheimer, a senior consultant for the Human Rights Campaign Foundation‘s Welcoming Schools program, came to one of our meetings and explained to us the core elements of the new initiative. The anti-bullying program specifically mentioned gay and lesbian parents when addressing aspects of family diversity. The program acknowledged single-parent families, foster families and children being raised by grandparents. We saw that the program was a perfect fit for our district, and three New Bedford principals volunteered their elementary schools for the pilot program.
The schools joined sites in urban centers in the Midwest and on the West Coast to implement the pilot. Since May 2007, each school has formed a task force of parents and staff to inform the careful implementation of the program. The program has evolved as a meaningful attempt to make sure that, from the earliest ages, all students feel welcomed in school. To expect that students will know how to handle issues related to teasing, gender stereotyping and bullying without specific, well-informed instruction is folly.
Welcoming Schools has made great inroads in the entire New Bedford public school system, not just the three elementary school pilot sites. Because of open discussions at district administrative meetings, other principals are better prepared to address the full range of student and family diversity at their schools. The Welcoming Schools Program and its Guide specifically address all aspects of student and family diversity. All benefit when students see that their families are acknowledged and respected within the school environment. It is only when some students and families are left out that problems develop and marginalization occurs.
As a former assistant superintendent, I strongly recommend, from the earliest grade levels, the Welcoming Schools program and Guide as an effective intervention to establish and maintain a safe school environment for each student. The New Bedford Public Schools needed to take more specific steps to keep all students safe, and Welcoming Schools provided the way.
Lawrence J. Finnerty, Ed.D.
Retired Assistant Superintendent
New Bedford Public Schools
© 2009 The Human Rights Campaign. All rights reserved
Washington Virtual Academies
Tuition-free online school for Washington students.
- Kindergarten Sight Words List
- Coats and Car Seats: A Lethal Combination?
- Signs Your Child Might Have Asperger's Syndrome
- Child Development Theories
- Social Cognitive Theory
- GED Math Practice Test 1
- The Homework Debate
- 10 Fun Activities for Children with Autism
- Why is Play Important? Social and Emotional Development, Physical Development, Creative Development
- Problems With Standardized Testing