13 June 2023
Lawmakers in several U.S. states have passed limits on discussions of race, gender and sexuality in classrooms. Some students say the measures targeting parts of their identity have made them feel less welcome in American schools.
The first time Tennessee student Harmony Kennedy remembered experiencing racism was in elementary school. On a playground, a girl picked up a leaf and said she wanted to "clean the dirt" from Harmony's skin.
In 2021, Tennessee started passing legislation that could limit the discussion and teaching of Black history, gender identity and race in the classroom. To Harmony, the law's possible effects are crushing.
"When I heard they were removing African American history, banning LGBTQ, I almost started crying," said Harmony, who is 16. LGBTQ is short for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer.
Conservative leaders in some states have strongly pushed for the new restrictions. Those lawmakers say the restrictions are necessary to fight against liberal ideas in schools. Activists and school boards have pushed for such moves, too. They say teachers need more oversight to make sure learning materials are appropriate.
Books have been removed from some school libraries. Some schools have continued call transgender students by the name they had before they changed to a different gender.
Some teachers are worried of breaking new rules. As a result, they have avoided discussions related to race, gender and other divisive issues.
‘Neutrality' policy impacts
Leo Burchell goes to a school outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In late 2020, during the pandemic school closures, he started using different pronouns. He started wearing different clothes. He cut his hair shorter, too. The changes, he said, felt right.
First he asked teachers to use they/them pronouns instead of she/her. Then he asked that they use he/him pronouns when talking to him.
"I changed my name to Leo, and for a while it was tough," he said. "I told the people close to me, but I wasn't ready to come out to everybody yet..."
Leo's school is part of the Central Bucks School District. Over the last year, the board has barred employees from using students' chosen names or pronouns without parental permission.
The board passed what it called a "neutrality" policy. The policy is meant to prevent social and political advocacy in classrooms. But opponents say the measure targets LGBTQ students.
One man told the school board in a meeting that transgender people presented a risk of violence in bathrooms. Leo expected another adult in the room to intervene in what felt to him like hate speech. But no one did.
So, at the next board meeting, Leo spoke up. "Attacking students based on who they are or who they love is wrong," he said. Leo has spoken up at other meetings since then.
Leo said he worries about what school will be like for younger transgender students.
"It really just breaks my heart to know that some of my friends, you know, might not want to go to school anymore," he said.
Students face backlash after speaking up
In Harmony's freshman-year English class, a boy started playing with his face mask and joked, "I can't breathe, just like George Floyd," Harmony remembered. Floyd, a Black man, was murdered in 2020 by policeman in Minnesota. His death led to nationwide and worldwide protests.
Harmony told her teacher, who said she was sorry it happened but there was not much she could do.
Harmony said the incident was a reminder of why it is important to teach a full version of American history. A law passed by Tennessee in 2021 banned schools from teaching several ideas on race and racism. Because of the law, many teachers now avoid discussions related to race.
After the incident, Harmony decided to join the Forward Club. The group works to support cultural and racial inclusion at her mostly white high school. The club's members come from diverse backgrounds.
At times, students who speak out against new policies have been targeted. In Williamson County, Tennessee, where Harmony goes to school, a political action committee (PAC) accused another high school's Black student union of promoting segregation. The PAC posted the time and place of the student group's meeting on social media. Elsewhere, transgender students who have spoken up about bullying have faced insults on social media.
Harmony said she has had to go outside of school to learn about Black culture and history. Her experience in high school has led her to want to attend a historically Black college.
Harmony said she wants to be able to go to school like any other teenager and focus on learning. But she said she will continue to speak out for what she believes in.
"My sister is going to be an incoming freshman this year," she said, "and I want her to have a safe learning environment where she doesn't have to really deal with all the ignorance and things."
I'm Dan Friedell.
And I'm Dan Novak.
Dan Novak adapted this story for VOA Learning English based on reporting by The Associated Press.
Words in This Story
gender — n. a person's own sense of being male, female, some combination of male and female, or neither male nor female
oversight — n. a mistake made because someone forgets or fails to notice something
appropriate — adj. right or suited for some purpose or situation
transgender — adj. of or relating to people who feel that their true nature is as a member of the opposite sex
pronoun — n. a word such as I, he, she, you, it, we, or they that is used instead of a noun or noun phrase
tough — adj. very difficult to do or deal with
advocacy — n. the act or process of supporting a cause or proposal
diverse — adj. different from each other
segregation — n. the practice or policy of keeping people of different races, religions, etc., separate from each other
bully — v. to frighten, hurt, or threaten
ignorance — n. a lack of knowledge, understanding, or education