What Message Are We Sending Kids? — from the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram

Read this column from our digital organizer Christian Phelps, published in the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram on Friday, April 15, 2022, here.

Students in our public schools won’t get a do-over at being kids. They’re kids now, and they can hear what we’ve been saying about them.

Over the course of our spring elections, particularly in school board races, we exposed Eau Claire area kids to dangerous and disgraceful conversations. It has left a wound we must heal.

We have a moral responsibility to build and defend a public education system in which every student thrives — one built on community and dignity, that values educators and supports them as they continually improve their craft, and that closes the shameful opportunity gaps facing students of color, students in poverty, students with disabilities, LGBTQ+ students, and others.

But, overshadowing any good-faith discussions about how to achieve this, LGBTQ+ students in our community have watched adults debate whether they should feel safe to confide in their teachers. They have seen and heard arguments over the legitimacy of their identities, while political actors and media outlets propelled those arguments to a national platform. They have been squeezed into the middle of petty squabbles about their very humanity.

I hope they know they’re not alone.

It’s time for a serious collective reflection on how we talk about students, families and public schools. Every time adults bicker over transgender students’ right to be themselves as they learn and play, or queer students’ right to build trusting relationships with their peers and their teachers, we send a harrowing message to those kids: your freedom is up for debate.

Bad policies have consequences. State-imposed spending caps leave many Eau Claire students without the resources they need and place an unfair burden on local taxpayers who are already struggling, through no fault of the district’s. Testing requirements take instructional time away from teachers. And if educators were forced to disclose a student’s private information, LGBTQ+ students would feel unsafe to confide in them. That is undeniable.

Here’s a less tangible, but equally serious, truth: kids are always assessing their own safety — before, during and after actual policy changes take place. I know because I was a queer kid in Eau Claire’s public schools not so long ago.

As a teenager, I silently but diligently kept tabs on countless conversations around me — on national television and in the halls of my school, and everywhere in between — about gay rights. When I was in middle school, Wisconsin voters decisively passed a referendum banning same-sex marriages and civil unions. When I was in high school, that ban was upheld in court. The policy didn’t immediately affect me, but the culture surrounding it did. I wondered why my identity was so frequently and flippantly tossed back and forth like a political football.

I had it easy. I enjoyed the support of my family and my teachers. I was the child of educators and was well-equipped to navigate school environments. Importantly, I was not transgender, or of color, or in poverty. Still, with decades of life ahead of me, I wasn’t sure who to trust.

Today’s LGBTQ+ kids are growing up into a beautiful community of people, but one that continues to struggle from generations of discrimination and — far too often — family rejection. Homelessness, addiction, depression and suicide rates are consistently higher among queer youth and adults than their straight counterparts.

Take a moment to imagine that your identity is a regular topic of Pew Research polls. Find a recent news story about trans kids or adults and put a descriptor of your own in place of what’s there. Imagine prominent national commentators arguing daily about whether you are who you say you are, and whether teachers should be allowed to support you.

Positive engagement is crucial. Our public schools belong to all of us. We can help them move forward, become safer and more welcoming. We can support educators as they support students and demand that every kid in Eau Claire has the resources they need, when they need them.

As we engage, remember that the children and teens are paying attention. Our community must unite to support them — to show them their safety, security and identity should never be up for debate. By doubting them, by lending legitimacy to dehumanizing dialogue, we’ve already made a serious error. It’s time to correct our behavior.

Voting in the spring election was one small step. We can attend school board meetings to speak our support for LGBTQ+ students and families into the public record. Be relentless listeners and defenders of Eau Claire’s LGBTQ+ students, students of color, students with disabilities and students in poverty. They’re here, now: we can’t make them wait for our collective healing.

We still have an opportunity to build a more affirming society. We can be a leader for the rest of Wisconsin and beyond. We can model what it looks like to put students first. As adults, we are responsible for our own discourse.

The kids can hear us. It’s up to us what kind of message we send them.

About the author: Christian Phelps

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