Why More Montana School Districts Should Follow Kalispell’s Lead

In order for students to succeed in school, they must first feel safe. Montana’s students need to know that their school is a place that doesn’t tolerate discrimination or bullying. And students should feel confident that their teachers, mentors and school leaders will protect their rights.

Congratulations to Kalispell Public Schools for updating their non-discrimination policy this week to include gender identity, sexual orientation and gender expression.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, LGBT children are more likely to encounter bullying, violence, depression and suicide than their heterosexual peers. A national survey found LGBT teens are twice as likely to have attempted suicide as their heterosexual peers.

I’m proud of the work going on in many of our school districts. More than 250 schools are part of the Montana Behavioral Initiative, which sets clear goals for creating a safe and respectful learning environment. Many districts have conducted system-wide training on bullying prevention because building a culture of respect involves everyone; students, teachers, administrators, and staff.

During the 2015 legislative session, I advocated for the passage of HB 284, the Bully Free Montana Act, which requires all schools to have policies and procedures for addressing bullying. I’m glad to say that Montana is no longer the only state in the nation without a bullying prevention law.

A quality education doesn’t just mean teaching students how to multiply and divide, or how to write a thesis statement. A quality education also includes teaching students how to relate to a world that is continually evolving.

Montana schools are taking steps toward creating a culture of respect.

Unfortunately, ending violence, bullying, and prejudice won’t happen overnight. And, it won’t happen at all unless we start by building relationships with people who don’t look exactly like us, who don’t act exactly like us and who may not believe what we believe.

Montana’s public schools have the tools it takes to ensure all students arrive each morning ready to learn and able to succeed. School leaders can empower students to create groups welcoming of everyone. School leaders can offer tools and trainings for teachers to learn to identify – and stop — the signs of discrimination and bullying. And school leaders can connect at-risk students with positive community resources that can so often mean the difference between success and struggle.

A quality education doesn’t just mean teaching students how to multiply and divide, or how to write a thesis statement. A quality education also includes teaching students how to relate to a world that is continually evolving. Our students are the future leaders of our communities, churches, businesses, state, tribal, and national governments.

I encourage other school districts to follow Kalispell’s lead and enact non-discrimination policies that make it clear all children are welcome in Montana’s public schools, and that our students don’t have to be afraid because of who they are.

Simply put: our future depends on it.