You are here


Senate Bill 48: California Sets a New Curriculum Standard

It became the first state to require school districts to include the contributions of gay Americans in their social studies curriculum.

In an effort to help stop bullying against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth, school district leaders can look to various organizations for help. And in what is considered landmark legislation, California Senate passed a bill on April 14, which was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on July 14, that will require public schools to include lessons in part about the historical contributions of gays and lesbians in their curriculum.

Senate Bill 48, or the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive and Respectful (FAIR) Education Act, requires schools to provide general instruction and textbooks that include information on the contributions of "Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, European Americans, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, persons with disabilities, and other ethnic and cultural groups." The act also add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state's existing anti-discrimination protections that prohibit bias in school activities, instruction and instructional materials.

State Sen. Mark Leno, who wrote the bill, says, "We are selectively censoring history when we exclude LGBT Americans, or any other group of people, from our textbooks and instructional materials."

GLSEN'S Safe Space Kit

Aside from the landmark legislation, organizations such as the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) can help provide districts with tips to combat bullying against the LGBT community. "We need more training, especially with what has happened across the country," says Robert McGarry, GLSEN's director of training and curriculum development, for all those involved in education.

In the wake of recent suicides of LGBT youth in towns and cities across the nation, GLSEN provides districts with a Safe Space Kit, which is a guide for schools to become safer places for LGBT students. Districts who are interested in the program can bring the training to their schools through locating their local GLSEN chapter and contacting them to request a trainer visit their school to train anyone who wishes to go through the program. Each chapter is provided with training for trainers through GLSEN's national training staff.

The Safe Space Kit provides four solutions, the first of which is to have supportive adults who become strong allies with the LGBT youth. Any staff member in a school can become an ally for LGBT youth and McGarry says that their presence is crucial since "simply knowing that allies exist can be a source of support."

The other three solutions include having an inclusive curriculum, creating Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) clubs in schools, and implementing district wide policies against bullying toward LGBT youth. "Students at schools with GSAs tend to be victimized a lot less than those without a GSA," McGarry says. GSA's are typically student led according to McGarry and students who participate in the club work to address anti-LGBT name-calling, bullying and harassment as well as promoting respect for all students.

During Safe Space training, people are provided with ways to respond to negative behaviors against LGBT youth such as name-calling, plus other resources that can help schools create an action plan for any LGBT youth not feeling safe. McGarry says that GLSEN has received positive feedback about the program. School districts such as Los Angeles Unified School District or entire states such as Maine have received training in all secondary schools. GLSEN is currently compiling further research towards the effectiveness of the kit in an effort to make sure it is bringing about the change the organization wishes to bring to schools.

Although the four solutions help to make schools a safer place for LGBT students, McGarry says that they do not solve everything. He said legislation such as seen in California is necessary and that a general practice of inclusion is needed.

Since the bill was proposed on December 13, 2010, state Sen. Leno, who is openly gay, has wanted to ensure that LGBT Americans were recognized for their historical contributions to the economic, political and social development of California. Both Equality California, an organization that sponsors legislation and builds coalitions to engage in the political process, and the Gay-Straight Alliance Network support the bill.

Support for such a bill was found within a 2004 survey of 359 California school districts. Many of these districts already had LGBT-inclusive curricula, and many more expressed an interest of expanding such material. The study also found that "more than 83 percent of school districts report including LGBT issues in their anti-bias lessons for some or all of their high school students; 64 percent do so for middle school; and 54 percent do so for elementary school students."

Ignorance Breeds Hatred

According to the FAIR Education Act Fact Sheet, "The FAIR Education Act would ensure that LGBT people are included in instructional materials, which studies have shown is linked to greater student safety and lower rates of bullying." It goes on to say that if schools allow silence or harmful stereotypes about LGBT people to thrive within their environments, schools can become places of fear and ignorance, which leads to bullying as well as hate-based violence that often results in suicide. With the new law, LGBT students will feel more comfortable and be more likely to attend and succeed in school.

McGarry adds that it will be good to have textbook publishers start to think about having such material within their books. California is one of the three largest producers of textbooks in the country, along with Texas and Florida. "Textbooks are inclusive of different races, ethnicities, and genders, and this will be another piece of the equation," McGarry says.

What California is creating is more of a standard than a curriculum, McGarry adds. Whether in the teaching of history or math, McGarry believes that the curriculum should include the possibility of LGBT families. Word problems in math, for example, shouldn't focus solely on heterosexual families. "The curriculum needs to be inclusive," McGarry says, "not just written and put on a shelf, but enacted in lesson plans and in pedagogy."

Charlotte Adinolfi is an intern for District Administration.