As the U.S. and countries around the world celebrate gay pride this month, Mahoganie Gaston wants to get out the word that Dallas ISD has its own program to support LGBTQ students. As coordinator of the district’s LGBTQ Youth Services, one question guides her daily work: How do we make our campuses inclusive for LGBTQ students?
Gaston, who joined the district seven years ago as a coordinator in the Homeless Education Department, was tasked in 2019 with helping high schools provide outreach and support to students via Gay/Straight Alliances (GSAs), campus groups that aim to create a safe, welcoming, and accepting school environment for all youths, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. In that role, she saw a need for more services for gay and lesbian youths.
“We know that 40 percent of LGBTQ youths are more likely to become homeless. We know that there is a need in Dallas ISD,” Gaston said. Working to address that need, she helped secure a Title IV grant allowing for the formation of the district’s LGBTQ Youth Services, under the auspices of Counseling Services.
“I work with campuses to get the GSAs started and [deal with]any issue or concern that parents or students may have – from campuses respecting gender pronouns, to new students coming into the district and wanting to make sure the campus goes by their preferred name, to – unfortunately – sometimes calls about bullying.”
Currently, there are 30 active campus GSAs, the majority of them in high schools, and their meetings are often also attended by those who consider themselves – like Gaston – straight allies, who come to support their peers.
“One of my favorite parts of the job,” she says, “is having those organic and authentic conversations with students.”
Another part of Gaston’s day-to-day role in the one-person department is districtwide training for staff. That involves instruction on federal, state and district policies that pertain to LGBTQ youth. “Part two of the training is what does that look like realistically,” how does that play out in a campus setting, Gaston said. “We want to make sure that all the staff is trained on how to engage in conversations with students and parents, and how to build those community relationships.”
During the spring semester, Gaston held 10 virtual training sessions, and two more were scheduled for June. In addition, she said, “We’ve updated our policies and procedures to show not only students but LGBTQ staff that we’re supportive and that they have a place in Dallas ISD. Parents, students, community members, and staff should know that as a department we’re here to support students, see the department grow, and hopefully, start better work in our state for providing support to LGBTQ students overall.”
Gaston also works with the Dallas Resource Center’s Out for Safe Schools program, to provide resources and training on making schools safer for LGBTQ students.
She stressed that Dallas ISD’s Gay/Straight Alliances on campuses are guided by responsible adults who follow district policy and procedures to ensure an environment where everyone feels safe. “We set ground rules for the GSA meetings. Students have to report it if they’re thinking about harming themselves or others. But we have a secure space here. If you’re going out and sharing what happens in here, then we can’t let you back into this space.”
Students who may need someone to talk to confidentially about their own gender questions can find support from their campus GSA sponsors, she said.
Due to privacy and confidentiality concerns, there is no firm number for the gay student population in Dallas ISD. Students are not asked about their sexual orientation or gender preference, she said, “because we want to keep a safe and welcoming environment.”
In the upcoming school year, Gaston will be working to grow the services provided for LGBTQ students and families in the district. “The department, under Counseling Services, is working with our Mental Health Services Department to provide equitable services for LGBTQ students – whether that’s having affirming therapists or school psychologists on campuses, or support groups for students and families – that is the direction we’re moving in to provide ongoing support within Dallas ISD.”
For more information and resources, go to www.bit.ly/DISDLGBTQ.