Students report feeling safer, less fearful at Kern High School District
When Samantha De La Cruz first arrived at Independence High School as a freshman more than eight years ago, it was a campus devoid of LGBTQ resources.
De La Cruz knew of no resource center for LGBTQ students like herself. She learned nothing about LGBTQ issues or achievements in history class or sexual education, something she felt was intentionally left out of the curriculum in one of California’s most conservative counties. Few students were open and proud because, she said, the school made little room for nontraditional identities. Hearing slurs against LGBTQ students wasn’t uncommon.
De La Cruz never felt discriminated against, she said. Instead, she felt invisible.
“In high school, I existed. I was openly queer, but I didn’t have a community,” said De La Cruz, now 22. “I didn’t have enough support.”
But LGBTQ students attending California schools now no longer face many of the challenges De La Cruz encountered eight years ago. Compelled by more than half-a-dozen laws passed by the state legislature in the past decade geared toward strengthening LGBTQ rights, preventing bullying and stemming suicide, school districts have created more inclusive environments for students with nontraditional gender identities.
A South Kern Sol analysis of school climate surveys and interviews with past and present students across the Kern High School District shows that the implementation of those policies have made LGBTQ students feel safer than ever before.
During the 2016-2017 school year, 5 percent of KHSD students felt disrespected or mistreated by an adult due to their gender identity or expression, according to a survey conducted at the time. That number dropped by 2 percent in 2017-2018. In nearly every facet of LGBTQ-related issues, students have felt increasingly safe.
The greatest progress has been made among black students. In 2016-2017, 10 percent of black students surveyed said they felt isolated or harassed at school because of their gender identification. In 2018-2019, that figure dropped 4 percentage points. Meanwhile, the percentage of black students who have reported feeling unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation dropped during the same time period from 8 percent to 4 percent.
Cultural shift came with resistance
The data is the clearest representation of a successful cultural shift toward inclusiveness at KHSD schools. Students have become more accepting of nontraditional gender identities as campuses began rolling out policies allowing transgender students to use bathrooms of their choice and implemented a curriculum including LGBTQ history.
Those changes, however, haven’t come without resistance — even from the highest echelons of district leadership.
Just three years ago, longtime KHSD Trustee Chad Vegas chose not to run for re-election over the issue of non-discrimination policies for transgender students. Vegas, a local pastor, voted against allowing transgender students to use their preferred bathrooms and said doing so would have violated his religious conscience. He later urged parents to withdraw their children from public schools.
Current KHSD trustee Jeff Flores attributes strides the district has made to new initiatives promoting student safety.
KHSD hired additional staff focused on student safety, including interventionists and social workers. It launched parent centers and pilot programs for student advocacy, something Flores said was most effective.
Parent centers, which have been introduced at every KHSD campus, now provide resources for students and parents to navigate the school system for instances of bullying, harassment and disciplinary issues.
The first student advocacy pilot program opened at South High and provides peer-to-peer counseling. Student counselors are trained by professionals to help their peers work through fears they may have and provide them with resources for bullying.
“I’m thankful for the feedback from these programs,” Flores said. “No students on our campuses should feel excluded and our programs are designed to track across all students, including LGBTQ ones.”
Though KHSD officials said it began complying with state law in 2013, LGBTQ alumni from Independence say access to bathrooms of their choice then was not widely known.
Now, the majority of KHSD students feel as though they can go to their school counselors for support about their sexual orientation or gender identity, according to a recent survey of KHSD students conducted by the California Department of Education.
Though KHSD schools offer an official pathway to changing a student’s name and pronouns within the school system, many students feel as though they don’t need to take that route. It’s unclear how many students have officially changed their names or pronouns officially since KHSD does not track such data.
‘Being out is nicer’
Johnathan Clugston, a 15-year-old Independence High freshman, came out as a transgender more than a year ago. Instead of filing with the district to change his name and gender pronouns, he spoke to his teachers individually and explained his transition, introduced himself by his new name and let them know his new gender pronouns.
Without hesitation, each of them referred to him as “Johnathan” and began using male pronouns when addressing him, Clugston said.
“Being [out] is nicer, and it actually helps me to connect with my teachers and talk to them about assignments. Hearing them call me by my name just makes me happy,” Clugston said.
His friends, who are almost all LGBTQ, feel a similar safety around their teachers.
Independence freshman Constance Pantoja, 14, is pansexual and has also found acceptance at her school. Pantoja and her girlfriend of two years feel just like any other students in the way their teachers treat them.
“There’s not even discrimination when it comes to public displays of affection,” Pantoja said, laughing.
Independence High alumni Saxon Cross, 21, said faculty always leaned towards acceptance. She recalled a teacher at Independence High who first validated Cross’ gender identity as a nonbinary person, an umbrella term for gender identities that exist outside of the binary of male and female.
“I have this one distinct memory of this one debate coach,” said Cross. “He said if ‘you genuinely feel more comfortable in who you are if you wear a dress instead of a suit, that would be fine with me.’”
Though the now-retired teacher was speaking to the class as a whole, Cross felt as though it was the support they needed. The teacher’s comments helped Cross feel more comfortable with the idea of expressing their gender — even if it was different than others.
Suicide, harrasment plagues LGBTQ community
When Clugston was verbally harassed by another student, he felt comfortable meeting with his school counselor and changed his class schedule. He was given the option to report the harassment but felt that changing his schedule would be sufficient.
Though verbal harassment of LGBTQ students can be common among high schoolers, current Independence students say it’s no longer socially acceptable to espouse anti-LGBTQ beliefs.
“As for students who don’t support it, they don’t verbally or physically abuse others for it. Every now and then you do get someone who says something, but the school is quick to help if you speak to them about it,” Pantoja said.
This is the kind of environment needed to support LGBTQ students, according to Kathleen Hanson, a California State University Bakersfield lecturer on sexual ethics and religious studies.
Common sense measures to foster that environment include schools creating policies in student, staff and faculty handbooks against LGBTQ discrimination, developing an inclusive curriculum that celebrates the contributions of LGBTQ people and offering comprehensive sexual education that is not “exclusively cis- and heteronormative,” Hanson said.
“Local education communities have come a long way, but we still have a long road ahead of us in terms of full acceptance and inclusion of LGBTQ+ folks. I think it’s up to every campus to include LGBTQ+ students’ voices in any discussion of movement toward a more welcoming environment for all students, regardless of sexuality and gender identity,” Hanson said.
Without these necessary measures to care for LGBTQ students, many of them become increasingly at-risk for depression and suicide. Between 30 and 50 percent of trans teenagers have attempted suicide, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
At a time where the suicide rates of LGBTQ and particularly transgender teens are climbing, Independence High School has fostered a caring environment for its students.
KHSD now has anti-discrimination policies that protect students from harassment or discrimination based on their gender identity or sexual orientation. In addition, the district has hired counselors, interventionist, social workers, psychologists, mental health clinicians, and other mental health professionals to provide support for students and combat the suicide rates in Kern County.
“Through the KHSD suicide prevention policy, staff and students are educated as to which students are high risk for suicide, and the resources that are available for them,” said Erin Briscoe-Clarke, KHSD Public Information Officer.
To De La Cruz, these new programs are not only commendable but vital for preserving the health of LGBTQ youth in Kern’s high schools. She is continues to hold out hope that these programs will recognize the humanity and dignity of the KHSD’s LGBTQ population.
“What this school needed, and now has, is not only the visibility of but the appreciation for who they are,” De La Cruz said. “If I were to have had these resources while I was in high school, I would have developed in my identity much sooner.
Featured photo: Samantha De La Cruz
This story was made possible with a grant from California Humanities, in partnership with the Bakersfield College Foundation and Virginia and Alfred Harrell Foundation.
South Kern Sol is a youth-led journalism organization in Kern County. In their stories, reporters shine light on health and racial disparities in under-served communities across Kern. For more stories by South Kern Sol, head to southkernsol.org.