01 Jul 2020 Equality Florida Institute Creates Inclusive School Cultures for SWFL’s LGBTQ Students
School is a crucial and complex part of growing up. It’s a period when young people develop not only academically in the classroom, but also socially and emotionally as they navigate life in the hallways, at after-school functions and on social media.
And for Southwest Florida’s LGBTQ students, life inside and outside the classroom can be even more challenging – all the uncertainty and anxiety that naturally accompanies adolescent development is layered with additional social-emotional complexities.
Providing school districts with the resources they need to create inclusive cultures and help school teachers and mental health staff develop best practices for providing support for LGBTQ students is the mission of Equality Florida Institute’s Safe and Healthy Schools program.
More than just a singular workshop approach, the program aims to holistically transform school systems by providing best-practices guidance that empower entire school districts to invest in, and take on the responsibility for, meeting the needs of LGBTQ students.
“We work with top–level district leadership to shift culture and climate,” explains Safe Schools Director De Palazzo. “The guidance we provide is systemic in nature and is designed to be implemented top-down and bottom-up.”
While a 2019 report issued by the Florida Department of Health (FDH) indicated that slightly more than 18% of students in Florida identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual, or were unsure of their sexual orientation, Ms. Palazzo notes that many school districts lack a go-to staff member with the necessary knowledge about issues specific to LGBTQ students – the Safe and Healthy Schools program is designed to help school districts fill that knowledge gap.
“A primary program that district leadership goes through with their individual school principals and staff including school counselors, social workers, school psychologists and nurses, is our LGBTQ cultural competency course,” she says. “It provides a roadmap for the safety and well-being of their LGBTQ youth.”
Ms. Palazzo points out that a recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey issued by FDH indicated LGBTQ students face significantly higher risks of depression, drug and alcohol use, as well as thoughts of suicide as they struggle to find a sense of safety, inclusion and belonging.
The Safe and Healthy Schools program has worked with thousands of educational leaders and staff in school districts throughout the state and with nearly 300 school officials in Lee, Collier, Charlotte and Hendry counties. Additionally, Equality Florida Institute is teeing up a new LGBTQ resource on the horizon for Southwest Florida: the Transgender Mental Health Summit.
Noting the unpredictability of the future due to COVID-19, Ms. Palazzo says, “We’re not certain yet if it will be virtual or bricks-and-mortar, but we’re going to bring together mental health therapists who are in the schools, as well as mental health providers from youth-serving nonprofits. What this is most deeply about is exploring how we serve the mental health needs of our transgender and non-binary young people in a clinical way.”
Like many organizations throughout the region, the Safe and Healthy Schools program had to adjust operations in the face of COVID-19, moving to virtual professional development training with school district personnel. And Ms. Palazzo says the support of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation has been instrumental in the organization’s maintaining positive forward momentum.
“I can’t underscore enough how important it is that there is funding and, equally important, the moral and ethical support around caring for all our youth,” she says. “We wouldn’t be able to deliver our program unless there was the Community Foundation saying we support you and are going to get behind you.”
When it comes to students finding their ways through what can be a challenging period in their developing lives, Southwest Florida’s LGBTQ students have a beacon in the Safe and Healthy Schools program to help guide the way. For more information, please visit www.eqfl.org/Safe_Schools or email De Palazzo at [email protected].
This article is part of a summer series that highlights the vital work of regional recipients of 2020 Community Impact Grants from the Southwest Florida Community Foundation.