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Those divided by transgender debate can share aim to prevent bullying: interview

Tina Owen-Moore started a public school in Milwaukee whose mission is to reduce bullying and welcome all students. She successfully reached out to people who initially protested outside her school. 

Courtesy of Harvard Graduate School of Education
Tina Owen-Moore founded the Alliance School, a public school in Milwaukee, Wisc., with a mission of reducing bullying and being safe and welcoming to all students.

The Trump administration’s removal of federal Title IX guidance for how schools should treat transgender students is sharpening divides on the issue. Advocates for LGBT rights and many educators are raising concerns about the harm that can come when the government sends mixed signals about the importance of protecting these students. The administration and its supporters, meanwhile, say the guidance prompted legal challenges, and that the issue should be handled at the state and local level.

But amid deep disagreements, there's one area where both sides may share common ground: their desire to prevent bullying as they sort out everything from school bathroom use to gender pronouns.

One person who’s helped bridge such divides is Tina Owen-Moore, founder of the Alliance School, a public school in Milwaukee, Wisc., with a mission of reducing bullying and being safe and welcoming to all students. In a phone interview Wednesday with the Monitor, she shared how she responded when conservative Christians protested outside of Alliance because they said it was a “gay” school (the school includes gay and transgender students among a wide diversity of students).

Now pursuing a doctorate in educational leadership at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, Ms. Owen-Moore says she is disappointed with the administration’s decision, but she believes there is a way for people to push past fear and anger and understand one another – the first building blocks for reducing harm. 

Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for brevity.

Q. The Alliance School opened in 2005, and in its third year, dozens of conservative Christian protesters were demonstrating outside, some carrying denigrating signs. How did you respond?

It was scary. I was trying to make sure the students were not harmed. A lot of the students were wanting to protect the school or protect each other. I encouraged the students to go on inside and let me take care of it.

I told [the protesters], “This is a school for anybody. We have a student who came here because he was conservative and Christian and was being bullied.”

I said, “I imagine that every one of you has a story when you didn’t want to go to school because you were bullied.” Many of them started sharing stories, and I said, “I would protect you, too.” That seemed to be something they really needed to hear.

I said, “It’s OK if we disagree on things, but can we agree it’s never OK to harm another person because of your beliefs?” Then the person kind of heading that group said, “You know what, she’s right, we can agree to this.”  And they left. After that day they were very friendly with me.

Q. Why did you create this school? Did you not see other schools making enough progress preventing bullying?

Unfortunately, so much of the response to bullying was, “It’ll always be there,” or the idea that if the student who was being bullied could change, then they wouldn’t be bullied. I really felt strongly that it was our responsibility to make sure that schools are safe and accepting for all students.

[Before starting the school, I taught high school English], and I gave them all shreds of paper and said, “Write down everything in your life that you’ve been through that’s hard.” I had them throw [the shreds] into a big box and I had each one grab a handful and create a collage so they could read them.

They were shocked to [read things like] “My brother’s in a gang,” or “I had a miscarriage.”

[Before this,] kids would insult each other back and forth. I told them, “When I see you hurting each other, it kills me because I know these are the things you are already carrying.” It was a really emotional class, but after that day there was so much more care and respect.

That became the cornerstone of my practice: How can we build connections so that people get to know each other so well that they are not likely to do harm? 

Q. The US Department of Education just rescinded the Title IX guidance to schools that told them, among other things, to let students use bathrooms matching the gender with which they identify. What are your thoughts on that?

This gets pushed back to the states, and we’ve seen some states fall very conservatively on these questions. I worry about the young people who are there. This affects their lives and whether or not they’ll go to school.

The saddest part for me is that people haven’t taken that chance to get to know the stories of the young people who are affected. Most people do not understand what it means to be transgender. Many people don’t know the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity. A lot of the laws, the fears, are all being built around not knowing what these things really mean.

Some of my students were really courageous and did a presentation with school leaders [when the Obama administration issued the transgender guidance].

Them sharing their stories and explaining the medical terms, those were the things that changed people’s perspectives. All of a sudden you could see a light bulb turning on. And then a lot less fear, a lot less judgment, because [the school leaders] were connecting it to the story of someone they saw right in front of them. 

Q. Some people have raised the concern that giving students a choice of which bathroom to use might violate other students’ privacy, or leave students vulnerable to sexual assault. What’s your response?

That was brought up [at the presentation], and one of my students said that nobody’s going to take that risk. The social consequences of crossing gender lines are so severe that people are not going to dress up like a girl to go into the girls’ bathroom.

This is about making sure that students who do identify with those genders have a safe place. It’s more likely that they will be assaulted if they are going into that other bathroom, because they don’t look like they belong there.

Gender identity [and] sexual behavior or abnormality are [sometimes] conflated, and that’s where a lot of the fear comes from. There’s no medical science behind that.

Q. Do you think a concern about bullying, which crosses political and ideological lines, can be built upon to find common ground around transgender issues?

I appreciate that [Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos] is standing up and saying, [in essence] “I do not stand behind any kind of bullying.” I hope that in some time she and the administration can understand how the [Title IX] policies [helped to prevent bullying].

I do think that this is a place where we can start to build that common ground.

I would love to sit down and talk with her or others about what will we agree to and how will we put it into practice. Even the first lady is talking about wanting to address cyber-bullying in her work. This is something we all agree to, that we want to make sure our children are safe.

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