Bull City Schools United, a new advocacy group focused on making Durham Public Schools more race, gender and LGBTQ-inclusive, got its start from three angry teachers in a car.
After attending a roundtable discussion hosted by Durham People’s Alliance on LGBTQ issues in schools in February, Matt Hickson, Cheyenne Solorio and Jacqui Batts got to talking.
“We had a conversation about how the students we teach, mostly students of color and students from low-income backgrounds, didn’t feel very represented in that conversation,” Hickson said. “In addition to that, there is a large gap in Durham Public Schools between the policy that exists that is progressive around gender and sexual orientation and the actual implementation which is lacking in a lot of ways, particularly in building teacher leadership.”
After eight months of organizing, they launched Bull City Schools United on Oct. 5.
All three teachers work at majority-minority schools in the Durham Public School district, meaning that most of their students are not white. Hickson and Solorio work at Neal Middle School. Batts recently moved from Neal to Northern High School.
Solorio says that a lot of teachers trained on making schools safer for LGBTQ youth — an acronym that stand for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer — go on to be successful in affluent schools.
“Their kids look different than ours,” Solorio said. “We knew that we needed a culturally responsive coming together with the community. An all-encompassing education for our schools, our district, our teachers, our kids and our families.”
Teachers at schools like Neal and Northern work with students whose lives lie in a complex web of connected identities that shape who they are and how they are treated. For example, a high school student could be a young woman, black, lesbian and from a low-wealth community. The academic jargon for how these factors meet in and affect a person is called “intersectionality.”
Bull City Schools United ran its first — and Durham’s first — open-enrollment training around race, gender and sexual orientation in Durham Public Schools on Oct. 19. They partnered with Holly Jordan, teacher at Hillside High School, and Safe Schools NC, a state-wide non-profit working to make schools safer for LGBTQ students.
Saturday, Nov. 5, Hickson, Solorio and Batts ran workshops for educators from across the state at the Safe Schools NC Conference. They taught about their strategy for making change, one building at a time and about how how LGBTQ youth of color suffer from bias in school discipline.
Bull City Schools United launched in a time of debate in North Carolina around LGBTQ rights in schools and public places.
“Right now, especially given the recent legislation, there are a lot of people who are confused,” Batts said. “There are a lot of teachers who don’t know how to handle some of the new and upcoming issues, for example like bathroom issues, or even what to call kids who prefer different names.”
Hickson, Solorio and Batts say they want to work with all teachers, meeting them where they are at with their knowledge of LGBTQ issues. They are starting at two pilot schools — Neal and Rogers-Herr middle schools — and are asking staff to do self-assessments to gauge teacher knowledge and needs.
Bull City Schools United has support from the school board, yet they also feel the need to push the district toward training more teachers to make the schools more inclusive.
In an October article, the Voice covered how Natalie Beyer, current school board member, thinks that the district has a long way to go in training staff. The gap between policy and implementation is where Hickson, Solorio and Batts step in.
“Bull City Schools United, I think, feels the need for actual action and teacher leadership to take ownership of the schools and the buildings to do something about it,” Batts said.
Bull City Schools United is creating fellowships, Hickson said, for four to five teacher leaders at their pilot schools (two more pilot schools will be announced before the end of the academic year, bringing their number up to four). These teachers will be given a stipend to attend workshops on how to support LGBTQ students in their classrooms and at their schools.
Ultimately, Hickson says, these teacher fellowships will lead to more people who can do their own workshops, thereby doubling or tripling the outreach power that Bull City Schools United has now.
The organization is looking to do outreach, too. They want to connect with faith leaders, Solorio says, in order to get feedback on how to talk with religious communities. Bull City Schools United is also looking to connect with psychologists, social workers, public health and policy experts to help assess the program.
There are some broad-brush ways that Bull City Schools could measure their effectiveness.
“In the long run, if we are creating safe schools for students of all races, of all genders, of all expressions, of all identities and all those different things, I feel that [in-school suspensions] and [out-of-school suspensions] and the school-to-prison pipeline will then lessen,” Solorio said. “Because if you’re building equitable schools and treating students with justice, and families with respect and justice, then that’s one of the biggest things you can do.”
Hickson, Solorio and Batts say they want to create a checklist that would include things like having peer mediation, Gay-Straight Alliance clubs and having teachers trained in creating safe schools. They would be able to use the checklist to grade schools on how equitable they are and use the results to push the school district toward making more changes.
In the end, though, Solorio wishes that all of this supervision would not be necessary.
“I want to get to the place where we don’t have to ask that question,” Solorio said, “because it’s just general knowledge that schools are safe places for everyone.”