In today’s redefinED podcast, Step Up president Doug Tuthill and Equality Florida chief executive officer Nadine Smith talk about their ongoing efforts to ensure every child has access to a safe and healthy learning environment.
“We’ve been having this conversation, I think, for a couple of years now,” Smith says. “We’ve taken some time to really figure out the best possible way to pursue this. To us, the bottom line is every student should feel safe and in an environment where they can thrive and be themselves when they go to school. That should be true in private school. That should be true in public school. It should be true throughout our K-12 system.”
Two-thirds of the schools that participate in the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and Family Empowerment Scholarship programs, which serve economically disadvantaged students, are faith-based. Smith, whose father is a church deacon and whose organization has worked with church congregations in the past, says she welcomes the opportunity to talk with faith-based leaders and educators across the state. A process that she and Tuthill have begun.
“In our years of doing this,” she says, “I think people are often pleasantly surprised when we get out of this idea of an us-and-them and friends-and-enemies, and we just talk as people who want the same things for our children and want to live in a community where we’re respected with dignity. And so I’ve had some of the best conversations with faith leaders all around the state.”
The influx of LGBTQ students into Step Up’s scholarship programs has led many schools to ask for training on how to better support these students. In response, Equality Florida has agreed to offer private schools who ask for it the same cultural awareness training program it currently provides public school districts.
“We’re hearing from a lot of the schools that they’re trying to serve these kids, but they often lack the expertise they need,” Tuthill says.
“In terms of the training that we do, what we really believe is that you meet people where they are, where their belief systems are,” Smith says. “We’re not telling someone that they have to change their faith beliefs, but what we are saying is there are ways that you interact with young people that can either make them safe and create a healthy learning environment or ways you can make them unsafe and push them away and push them down a path that can lead to depression, suicide, homelessness – a lot of negative outcomes.
“What we discover in talking to schools and parents and teachers who cross the spectrum in terms of belief – political beliefs, religious beliefs, cultural beliefs – is that they want to create the safest space for every student, they want to see them have the most support in becoming who they are. And we can be a great partner in making that happen.”