Atlantic City, NJ — Members of boards of education from across the state learned what they can do to support LGBTQ+ youth in their school systems from South Orange Maplewood Board of Education member Shannon Cuttle. Cuttle joined forces with Dr. Jan Kaminsky, director of education for Rainbow Health Consulting, to give the presentation at the 2019 New Jersey School Board Association conference held in Atlantic City this week.

Both the October 22 presentation, “Supporting the Health of LGBTQ+ Students in Schools,” and the one Cuttle will co-lead today, Oct. 23, “Developing an Inclusive School District for LGBTQ+ Students,” were firsts in two ways: the first conference sessions the organization has had to address the topic of LGBTQ students and the first to be led by anyone from SOMSD. "These could very well be the first programs of their kind at our annual conference," affirmed Frank Belluscio, NJSBA deputy executive director and director of communications. "In the past, NJSBA has addressed LGBTQ student rights during training programs at other times of year conducted by our legal and policy units. Those programs were aimed primarily at school board attorneys." In yet another first, this year every SOMSD BOE member was able to be present for at least part of the four-day conference, in addition to Superintendent Dr. Ronald Taylor and some key district staff.

Kaminsky, a former Maplewood resident who now resides in Florida, felt the Action Lab, an interactive training program, was extremely well received and generated good conversation. “We talked about terminology, risk factors… and some of the ways you can be actively supporting these youth in a district.” 

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She noted that some 3,000 elected officials, top administrators, and support staff gather for the conference each year, with hundreds of choices of topics to discuss. Their presentation was standing room only with some 75 people attending. “Everyone is really working to make schools safer and more welcoming across the state… People see the importance of anti-bullying programs and violence prevention, and they want to be a part of that,” she said.

Yesterday's presentation included information from The Trevor Project which said LGBTQ+ Youth are disproportionally at higher risk for negative health outcomes than their heterosexual peers, both in mental health — with higher rates of bullying, violence, anxiety, depression and suicide — and physical health factors such as higher rates of substance use and smoking. The information also said that higher rates of absenteeism and poor academic performance are seen in the cohort.

Cuttle, a Maplewood resident who is in her first term on the board, said “people in attendance were hungry to learn” about the topic, to know “how to talk to their colleagues and to take materials back home as board members so they can share them and start building foundations of equity.” Today's presentation, a group session co-led with Lillian Riveria of the Hetrick-Martin Institute: New Jersey will provide an overview of the areas essential in creating an affirming, inclusive, and welcoming school district for LGBTQ+ students. Cuttle is also executive director of the Safe Schools Action Network.

A new mandate, signed into law in January by Gov. Phil Murphy, requires education around LGBTQ+ history and disabled persons for New Jersey middle and high school students; it will go into effect during the 2020-21 school year. The two conference sessions will help districts around the state prepare, Cuttle said. “The two sessions are aligned in that way,” they said, “to set a district up for success.”