Supporting vulnerable youth in K-12 schools

Werklund School researchers turn to educators to learn best practices for creating safe and inclusive schools

While Bill 24 succeeded in ensuring Alberta schools must allow the establishment of Gay Straight Alliances at the request of students, Werklund School of Education researchers Andrew Luceno and Vanessa Vegter caution that this does not mean educators and administrators can abdicate their responsibility to create respectful and welcoming learning environments.

“I think it’s fantastic that we have legislation that mandates GSAs for all schools that have students who want one, at the same time, I think it's so hard for students to ‘out’ themselves and request one,” says Luceno.

Luceno believes it is imperative that educators be empowered and informed so that they can assist in establishing safe and inclusive spaces in schools, but that not enough is being done to prepare them before they step into the classroom.

“It's not that people don't want to do anything about it, it's that they don't know what to do about it.”

Luceno and Vegter are currently conducting a survey and interviews with teachers, administrators, school counsellors and psychologists to identify successful strategies employed and institutional barriers faced when establishing welcoming learning environments for students. The data gathered will be used to better equip pre-service and in-service educators when it comes to addressing diversity in schools. “In terms of the people we've interviewed so far, they themselves didn't emerge from their pre-service programs knowing how to address homophobia and transphobia in their school environments,” explains Vegter. “We believe university programs can do more to educate students on issues of diversity and on how to support vulnerable youth.”

According to Dr. Tom Strong, a professor in the Werklund School, the time is ripe for this type of research. “Efforts to develop and maintain safe and inclusive spaces are relatively recent in schools. With the passing of Bill 24, a natural opportunity arose to study how Alberta’s educational professionals are supporting marginalized and vulnerable students.”

The Werklund School’s Dr. Jac Andrews has been working in the field of inclusive education for several decades and believes the project is charting new territory. “To my knowledge, this is the first survey in Canada of educators, counselors and psychologists with respect to their experiences and suggestions for implementing safe and inclusive spaces for LGBTQ students.”

Hanging rainbow flags, informing students that they can request a GSA and working with other staff members to make curricula more inclusive are some of the examples of effective strategies revealed by educators in the initial interviews Luceno and Vegter have conducted. Barriers include lack of budget for gender and diversity-related professional development, a common challenge for those working in rural schools.

The necessity of having the backing of administration is the most valuable lesson the researchers have uncovered.

“A supportive administration is essential when starting programs that often receive pushback. It's so important that administration takes a stand on the kind of school climate it wants, as well as the ethos it has towards inclusivity and diversity.”

Counselling and school psychology Professor Sharon Robertson says she is not surprised that those in senior positions plays such an important role. “As educational leaders, they engage in setting and implementing policies and practices such as those that promote appreciation of diversity, address bullying and harassment, model constructive relationships and provide support for students and staff. “ 

Vegter adds that building a welcoming environment is in the best interest of administrators as it benefits the entire school community.

“Research reveals that GSAs and QSAs not only improve the safety and learning environments of LGBTQ students and those involved in GSAs, but of all students. Students actively involved in GSAs have demonstrated improvements in attendance and academic achievement. As well, they report higher self-esteem and improved personal relationships.”

Educators, administrators, school counsellors and school psychologists interested in assisting in this research are encouraged to complete the online survey.