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Aspen students teach faculty about transgender support tactics while district efforts vary

Kim Zimmer
Aspen School District
Madison Nelson, left, and Mila VonderHaar present tips to teachers at Aspen High School on how to support transgender students in the classroom on Nov. 16, 2022.

Pueden encontrar la versión en español aquí.

Students at Aspen High School developed a presentation for their health class at the end of the 2021-2022 school year about the different identities under the LGBTQ+ spectrum for their classmates.

Now, they’re delivering these lessons to their teachers, even as school administrators across the Roaring Fork Valley are grappling with how to provide the faculty with these tools at a district level.

Mila VonderHaar is in the Gender and Sexuality Alliance, a club also known as the GSA, and gave a presentation on LGBTQ+ issues last year to students in their health class.

“Really, all parts of the school could use, like, a bit of growth,” VonderHaar said. “And it's understandable because, like, not everybody knows everything.”

VonderHaar and co-presenter Madison Nelson thought more people could benefit from hearing this information, so in mid-November, with the help of their classmates in the GSA, they expanded the audience.

“We also discovered that teachers were kind of wanting an informational type of thing to help educate themselves on trans people and, like, using they/them pronouns,” Nelson said. “Because that was something that was happening a lot, and they just, like, didn't really know how to handle it in their classes.”

Kim Zimmer
Aspen School District
Students in Aspen High School’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance sit with Aspen Middle School students interested in forming a GSA during one of its meetings on Dec. 15, 2022. They were having a pizza party to celebrate the upcoming holiday break.

Their efforts come two months after the neighboring Roaring Fork School District released a “gender expansive toolkit,” which provides some basic guidelines on how staff can better support transgender students.

Teachers at Roaring Fork schools are now expected to use a transgender student's correct pronouns, allow students to dress according to their gender identity, use the restrooms that correspond to their gender identity, and participate in the same school activities as any other student.

Nelson says this toolkit is a comprehensive and supportive step.

“Yeah, that's a very, very strong statement, and it's very reassuring, like, for trans people to know that they will be able to fit in with the rest of the student body with the gender that they identify as,” Nelson said.

But the students’ presentation goes even further than the Roaring Fork School District’s toolkit, giving teachers specific tips on what they can do in the classroom to create a more respectful environment for trans students.

They suggest teachers could use buttons or pins that display a students’ pronouns that attach to a shirt or a backpack.

Faculty could also ask students to share their pronouns in class during introductions.

“If you have a question regarding pronouns, ask!” VonderHaar said. “Asking about pronouns is much better than misgendering people.”

Nelson adds that it’s common to make mistakes with pronouns, but it’s more harmful to harp on it.

“Don’t draw extreme attention to your mistake,” Nelson said. “Quickly fix it in the moment and move on or address it the next time you interact with that student.”

And VonderHaar draws attention to the life-saving potential this education can have.

“Just one peer’s or teacher’s acceptance of a trans person’s identity makes their suicidality shoot down,” VonderHaar said.

The training is relevant to teachers and students in the Aspen School District who lost an 8th grader who was transgender to suicide last year.

To keep the conversations going, the students impress upon their teachers that continued self-education is a big part of being an ally.

Nelson said that standing up in front of their teachers was a role reversal, and it wasn’t easy for them.

But despite the nerves, she found her teachers were a receptive audience.

“They're the ones we're supposed to be looking up to,” Nelson said. “They're the ones educating us, not the other way around. So it's just weird, like, just being in that position. But ultimately we got a lot of teachers willing to educate themselves further.”

VonderHaar says that they would like to see the Aspen School District do something at an administrative level, similar to the Roaring Fork School District’s toolkit.

“I would really like to have that same coordination here, which I think is really the ultimate goal of trying to educate teachers and staff,” VonderHaar said. “I would like to see change here. I would like to see the LGBT people, the transgender people all having this resource or having a really concrete resource here.”

Halle Zander
Aspen Public Radio
Dev Parker, left, and JP McMenimen stand by a pride flag in the classroom where the Gender and Sexuality Alliance meets at Aspen High School on Dec. 15, 2022. Parker and McMenimen helped fellow students in the GSA develop a presentation for faculty on different identities under the LGBTQ+ spectrum.

Dave Baugh, superintendent of the Aspen School District, said in an email that the district hasn’t released a toolkit because they’ve facilitated other things like anti-bias training, and the school district has a history of being inclusive.

He also mentioned that internal research suggests some of the school’s biggest challenges are body shaming and a lack of support for students with conservative perspectives.

So while a gender toolkit from the Aspen district is not on the horizon, students in the GSA say they’ll continue to educate their peers and their teachers.

JP McMenimen is in the high school’s GSA and said, “It’s just nice to be in a place where people are similar to you. It gives a sense of security, I guess.”

McMenimen’s classmate Dev Parker added that they transferred to AHS a few years ago and joined the club during COVID.

“I didn't feel like they were forced to welcome me in,” Parker said. “They were welcoming in because they wanted to get to know me and they wanted me to be a part of this amazing thing we have up here at the high school.”

Halle is an award-winning journalist and the All Things Considered anchor for Aspen Public Radio. She has been recognized for her work by the Public Media Journalists Association and the Colorado Broadcasters Association. Before she began working full-time with Aspen Public Radio in September 2021, Halle was a freelance broadcast journalist for both Aspen Public Radio and KDNK. Halle studied environmental analysis at Pitzer College. She was an educator at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and at the Andy Zanca Youth Empowerment program, where she taught youth radio and managed a weekly public affairs show.