Last week, the School District of Philadelphia held its first Youth Pride event at 440 North Broad St., district headquarters. In a large urban district where social climate can vary widely from school to school, this is another in a large series of small steps our district has recently taken to support the LGBTQIA youth population that we serve.

This support is desperately needed: Queer youth are much more likely than their peers to become homeless, they often suffer physical and verbal harassment at school, and they are potentially more likely to drop out due to school climate issues. These crises can be mediated in small but powerful ways in school, such as using the student’s name and pronouns that match their gender identity and providing visible support like safe space placards.

The School District of Philadelphia has been on the cutting edge in creating policy to support transgender and gender nonconforming youth. In June 2016, the School Reform Commission (which has since been replaced by the Board of Education) passed Policy 252 for transgender and gender nonconforming students. The policy makes clear the rights of gender variant students in numerous ways, like promising that school records will match a student’s identity and that schools will stop arbitrarily segregating school activities and infrastructure by gender (such as the ubiquitous boys and girls lines in elementary schools or different colored gowns at a graduation ceremony).

In February 2017, when President Donald Trump’s administration rolled back the Obama-era guidances that Title IX protections applied to trans and gender nonconforming individuals, Mayor Jim Kenney and Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. went on record to say they believed in protecting Philadelphia’s LGBTQIA community. Dr. Hite even referenced our progressive policy in his statements, saying “We’re proud of that policy and glad that we can provide what we think are very safe and supportive environments for all children.”

So it may surprise you that, despite a progressive policy existing on record for more than five years, there have been few tangible changes in how schools operate on a daily basis.

Although it is written into Policy 252 that all staff will be trained on the policy, until the spring of 2021 there was only one attempt to roll out this training on a mass scale in the fall of 2016. Educators were crowded into echoing auditoriums and were read slides by district presenters. Despite a noble attempt to educate participants with the expertise of partners from the Mazzoni Center and the Attic, two of Philly’s renowned experts in LGBTQIA affairs, the impersonal, crowded, and rushed presentations didn’t seem to make much of an impression as evidenced through dozens of conversations in the ensuing years with fellow educators who often don’t remember what 252 is. As recently as last school year, I’ve heard about administrators who flatly refuse to follow the policy when prompted by a staff member.

Since then, I’ve made it my business to make sure my colleagues know about this policy and understand its impact. In 2019, I created a zine for educators called “Queering the Classroom” that not only gave a brief intro to the policy but also gave some concrete steps for creating safer and more affirming school spaces for LGBTQIA youth. I’ve become the unofficial queer liaison for the district, with staff from both public and charter schools reaching out via email, Facebook, and Twitter DMs to ask about the process of changing a student’s name or to seek support in dealing with an issue at their school. This summer, I made a second zine for students so they may learn their rights under policy 252. It’s essential work I’m proud to do, but sometimes it feels like a second full-time job.

» READ MORE: Why I created a zine to support queer and trans students in the classroom | Opinion

The pandemic exacerbated the needs of LGBTQIA students. With online learning, students’ screen names match their legal names, which could inadvertently out a student as trans to their peers. Students were suddenly small icons with names underneath, which meant that being confronted by a “dead name” was a constant stressor for trans and gender nonconforming students. I was heartened when the district rolled out a form that students and staff could use to have their names changed in the virtual space.

I’m also encouraged that the district has promised that every school building would have a publicly accessible gender neutral bathroom by the start of this school year, although we have not yet seen documentation that this goal has been met. Regardless, it should not be the job of rank-and-file staff to push for enforcement of these policies.

» READ MORE: In Philly, amid the coronavirus, a step forward for transgender students

Although the district has mastered some displays of solidarity, they must commit the resources and human power to making all of our schools safe. School board member Mallory Fix-Lopez has called for the district to create a dedicated position within the diversity and equity office that would specifically oversee school climate and policy for LGBTQIA students. In a moment when all educators are overwhelmed with student needs, this systemic support is necessary.

Maddie Luebbert is an English teacher at Kensington Health Sciences Academy, a neighborhood high school. They are a proud member of the PFT, the Caucus of Working Educators, and Racial Justice Organizing. @MaddieLuebbert