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Building Learning Environments to Foster Belonging: Supporting LGBTQIA+ Youth

April 23, 2021 12:00 AM
By: PDE Office for Safe Schools and Dr. Nikole Hollins-Sims


To do their best, students must feel safe at school. A healthy and safe environment can help students thrive, and every student, regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, gender identity, or expression should be provided the opportunity to learn free from discrimination, fear, or harassment.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) is committed to ensuring positive, productive, and safe learning environments for all students. Additionally, PDE is committed to ensuring all who interact with the state's school systems feel psychologically, emotionally, and physically safe.

Pennsylvania defines equity in schools as: "every student having access to the educational resources and rigor they need at the right moment in their education across race, gender, ethnicity, language, disability, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, family background and/or family income (" 

In recent months, there have been incidents in the Commonwealth, which have  impacted the vital components of safety and equity for our students, staff, and communities. PDE understands that transphobic comments made by members of a school system affect not only individuals they specifically target, but everyone in the school system- which  goes against the safe, supportive climates we promote in our Pennsylvania schools. We would like to assure our students, families, and school systems that we do not support messages of intolerance or comments that target individuals based on their group membership or identify (e.g. race/ethnicity, religion, gender identity, disability).

"I'm proud of Pennsylvania's school communities for the tireless, critically important work they do each and every day to cultivate, maintain, and promote safe and equitable educational spaces where students have the ability to express their identities without fear or reserve," said Acting Secretary of Education Noe Ortega. "As I reflect on the nomination and confirmation of my former colleague, Dr. Rachel Levine, as the 17th Assistant Secretary for Health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, I am reminded of the impact of safe spaces and the value of voice from diverse perspectives."

Communities looking for tools to support their equity journey can access the PDE Equity and Inclusion Toolkit and the PDE Equitable Practices Hub, or connect with the PDE Equity and Inclusion Task Force. The Equity and Inclusion Toolkit is a resource to support efforts in promoting inclusive environments through the process of prevention, response and recovery and is a valuable resource in preventing and responding to incidences of bias. In addition, this toolkit may be found in the PDE Equitable Practices Hub, which offers a coherent set of vetted resources to further support educational systems in their equity journey. The hub is designed around 6 equity pillars of practice: (1) General Equity Practices (2) Self-Awareness (3) Data Practices (4) Family/Community Engagement (5) Academic Equity and (6) Disciplinary Equity. Finally, the department has continued to collaborate with experts and champions of equity and inclusion across the Commonwealth, as part of the PDE Equity and Inclusion Task Force. The mission of the taskforce is to ensure that PDE and other state agencies are responsive to the needs of the commonwealth as it relates to the creation and sustainability of safe, equitable learning environments for ALL students.  

Equitable, trauma informed learning environments create a safe setting for youth to develop their educational skills and develop skills that will allow them to be career-ready adults. "Development of career ready students who are prepared to succeed in a diverse world requires a safe, supportive learning environment," said Dana Milakovic, the Mental Health/AOD Specialist for the Office for Safe Schools at the Pennsylvania Department of Education. "I encourage every educator to create learning environments that are safe for all students, families, and staff by engaging in actions that promote equity and are free from discrimination, fear, or harassment. Schools continue to serve a vital role in helping youth express their identities and develop relationships that will promote mental wellness."

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