Securing safe learning environments for Florida’s LGBTQ+ students
St. Petersburg — This week, on February 25-26, 175 school district leaders from 31 Florida school districts, as well as representation from the North East Florida Education Consortium and Florida Virtual Schools, gathered in St. Petersburg for the fifth annual All Together Now Conference. Attendees represent over 80% of Florida’s public school population. This conference provides two days of intensive trainings for attendees to gain expertise on nationally recognized best practices for creating welcoming and supportive learning environments for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBTQ+) students, a population known to face elevated risk factors for a number of negative educational consequences. (Full list of participating districts below)
This was the second year St. Petersburg has hosted the conference. Mayor Rick Kriseman welcomed attendees and Pinellas Schools Superintendent, Dr. Michael Grego, joined superintendents Jeff Eakins from Hillsborough, Dr. Todd Bowden from Sarasota, and Robert Runcie from Broward on the opening superintendents roundtable panel. The conference also included school board members, directors of student services, mental health professionals, school board attorneys and general counsel, state PTA leaders and leaders from community agencies that work with LGBTQ+ young people. The conference is a joint project of Orange County Public Schools, Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Broward County Public Schools, Palm Beach County Public Schools, Pasco County Public Schools, Osceola County Public Schools, Equality Florida Institute, Safe Schools South Florida and Metro and is funded in part by the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg whose President and CEO, Randall H. Russell, was also a panelist.
(Sarasota Superintendent Dr. Todd Bowden, Equality Florida Safe & Healthy Schools Director De Palazzo,
Hillsborough Superintendent Jeff Eakins, Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie and
Pinellas Superintendent Dr. Michael Grego)
Training sessions included: building capacity and structure within school districts to serve the unique needs of LGBTQ+ youth; supporting Gay Straight Alliances (GSAs), which are clubs for LGBTQ+ students and allies; creating LGBTQ+ policy and procedure manuals; training on gender and the special needs of transgender youth; a panel of school district attorneys from small, medium, and large districts discussing opportunities and requirements for LGBTQ+ inclusivity.
The All Together Now Conference is a central event of Equality Florida Institute’s Safe and Healthy Schools Program. The program also provides professional development trainings for school district administrators, faculty, and support staff; robust support for PTAs (Parent Teacher Associations) and GSAs; and coalition building among local LGBTQ+ youth supporting nonprofit agencies and their respective school districts.
In Pinellas County, the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg has funded a deep, two-year partnership between Equality Florida Institute and Pinellas County Public Schools to expand best practices for LGBTQ+ students throughout the district. Pinellas has long been a leader in supporting LGBTQ+ students. Pinellas was one of the first school districts in Florida to protect LGBTQ+ students in its bullying and harassment policies, and more than a decade ago became the first district in Florida to ensure that there was a GSA in every high school.
“Education is a fundamental building block of a healthy life. We are pleased to support Pinellas County Schools’ continued leadership in creating a safe and effective learning environment for all students, particularly those who face disproportionate challenges due to their gender expression,” said Randall H. Russell, President and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg.
Through the Safe and Healthy Schools Program, Equality Florida Institute and the Pinellas County School District are working together to provide professional development to key school district staff including principals, assistant principals, counselors, social workers, psychologists, and nurses; provide trainings and other forms of support for PTAs and GSAs; and deepen partnerships with agencies that provide services to LGBTQ+ youth.
According to De Palazzo, Safe and Healthy Schools Program Director for Equality Florida Institute, supportive services specifically targeted for LGBTQ+ youth are essential to ensuring their safety and wellbeing. Between 15% and 19% of Florida students identify as LGBT. These students are at dramatically increased risk for being bullied, harassed, assaulted, skipping school, dropping out, becoming homeless, using drugs, or being victims of homicide. These risks are even higher for transgender youth, who account for approximately 3.6% of Florida’s students. Most alarming of all, research shows that LGBTQ+ youth are four times more likely than heterosexual students to seriously consider suicide and to make the attempt.
Palazzo states, “In creating this program, we collaborated with more than two dozen top school districts in the country that prioritize LGBTQ+ student support, including L.A. Unified School District, New York City Schools, D.C. Public Schools and many others. When LGBTQ+ kids are struggling just to find a safe space to exist at school, they can’t focus on learning. Too many LGBTQ+ students drop out because they feel threatened or unsafe at school. The All Together Now Conference is especially valuable because it gives teachers and administrators the tools to create and maintain inclusive, welcoming learning environments for LGBTQ+ students. The programs our school district partners throughout Florida are working to implement are proven to be the best practices for supporting LGBTQ+ youth.”
(Attendees of the All Together Now Conference)
List of School District Participants in the All Together Now Conference:
Alachua County Public Schools
Bradford County School District
Brevard Public Schools
Broward County Public Schools
Charlotte County Public Schools
Citrus County School District
Collier County Public Schools
Duval County Public Schools
Escambia County School District
Hernando County School District
Hillsborough County Public Schools
Lake County Schools
Lee County Schools
Leon County Schools
School District of Manatee County
Marion County Public Schools
Martin County School District
Miami-Dade County Public Schools
Monroe County School District
Okeechobee County School District
Orange County Public Schools
School District of Osceola County
School District of Palm Beach County
Pasco County Public Schools
Pinellas County Schools
Polk County Public Schools
Putnam County School District
Sarasota County Schools
Seminole County Public Schools
St. John’s County School District
St. Lucie Public Schools
Florida Virtual School
North East Florida Education Consortium
About the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg
The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg is a private foundation formed in 2013 following the sale of the nonprofit Bayfront Health St. Petersburg. It is the steward of community assets dedicated to supporting health equity in Pinellas County. The Foundation inspires and empowers people, ideas, information exchange, organizations and relationships to end differences in health due to social or structural disadvantages and improve population health.Healthystpete.foundation
About Equality Florida’s Safe and Healthy Schools Initiative
Equality Florida Institute is the largest organization dedicated to securing full equality for Florida’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community. Equality Florida Institute’s Safe and Healthy Schools Program aims to create a culture of inclusion and support while countering the bullying, harassment, social isolation, and bigotry that dramatically increase risk factors for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning) students. Through this program, we support school districts in implementing nationally recognized best practices for meeting the needs of LGBTQ students.
De Palazzo is the Statewide Program Director for Equality Florida’s Safe and Healthy Schools Program. Prior to accepting this position, De served for over 25 years as a classroom teacher, Broward School District LGBTQ+ Coordinator, national LGBTQ+ consultant and anti-bias trainer. De helped build exemplary programs and practices in Broward Schools that are considered a national model for school districts looking for guidance. In addition to her work within the school district, she also has two decades of experience working with LGBTQ+ youth agencies and is one of the top national experts on transgender student policy. De has served as a member of the GLSEN National Board of Directors, and founded GLSEN Fort Lauderdale. She has been a nationally certified anti-bias trainer for GLSEN and the Anti-Defamation League, as well as the Human Rights Campaign’s Welcoming Schools K-5 Project, a comprehensive approach to improving school climate in elementary school environments. De co-initiated “Courageous Conversations about Race,” a race and equity-based initiative in Broward County Public Schools. De holds dual masters degrees in education and conflict resolution. She is respected for her ability to connect easily with school officials and teachers and to create spaces that allow for open, safe dialogue among participants.