Inside MSEA: Leading on Social Justice

Frederick County educators stand up for transgender students.

MSEA Executive Director David Helfman

In November, local presidents, MSEA staff, and the board of directors came together to learn from each other and discuss plans for the coming year. At the meeting, I was particularly struck by the story that Frederick County Teachers Association President Missy Dirks and UniServ Director Nicola van Kuilenburg shared.

In May of 2016, county-level data in the Center for Disease Control’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that more than 50% of lesbian, gay, and bisexual students experienced suicidal thoughts and 40% had developed a suicide plan. Those numbers were even higher among transgender youth. FCTA considered the report a call to action to support and protect LGBT+ students.

The local met with educators, students, and community members who shared the same goal. They organized. And the FCTA rep assembly unanimously supported the passage of a new board of education policy that would help protect transgender students — which the board passed in June of 2017.

FCTA’s goal wasn’t to make a political statement; it was to make school a safer place for students. Missy and Nicola reported that far from complaining about FCTA’s involvement in an often politicized issue, educators joined the union because they saw it standing up for kids.

Transgender students prevail with school policy in Maryland
When James van Kuilenburg used the bathroom at his Maryland high school, he always worried. Would he be taunted by his…

After the board passed the new policy, a lawsuit was filed against it with the support of the Alliance Defending Freedom, an anti-LGBT organization designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group. The lawsuit tried to eliminate the new policy and toss out parts of the county’s bullying policy — placing students and educators in harm’s way. In response to the lawsuit’s regressive intent — let alone its description of educators as running “child cults [like the] Soviet Komsomol” and as “government actors” treating students in ways that “evoke imagery from the horrors of Nazi death camps” — FCTA, MSEA, and NEA joined the legal defense. A day later, the lawsuit was dropped.

The story that Missy and Nicola shared is just one example of how educators can lead on social justice issues that not only strengthen our association, but protect our students and make school a more welcoming and safer place for them.