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Molly McClish [Courtesy Photo]

Three years have passed since losing my daughter, Lily. I felt that the best way I could honor her life and her death this year was to update the community on what progress has been made in the Grand County School District. 

A toxic culture that ignores and perpetuates discrimination and bullying affects everyone: all students, all staff, all parents and the community as a whole. This is largely what was happening and existing in 2017 when Lily died by suicide at age 13.

Even when she was named Student of the Month for her tolerance, she didn’t feel safe to report what she was seeing and experiencing at school. Lily witnessed her gender non-conforming friends experience bullying and discrimination on a frequent basis, often in front of teachers who she felt agreed with what was being said. This environment of hopelessness and bullying played significantly in her suicide.

I evaluated progress in areas I identified as critical to making the environment at the schools safer for all youth, but especially LGBTQ+ students, who experience disproportionately higher rates of bullying in schools. My assessment on this matter is rooted in the belief that mental health and wellbeing are critical components of school safety and that a school is only as safe as its most vulnerable populations feel.

Paying attention to what is happening in the schools is extra important right now because of the coming loss of JT Stroder as Superintendent. Ensuring that the school board continues his work prioritizing mental health and wellbeing in the schools as they select a replacement will have an enormous impact on future progress. I personally extend deep thanks to him for all the work he has done to create a better environment in the schools and his commitment to the wellbeing of all students.

It is with heartfelt pleasure and immense gratitude that I report a huge improvement in the environment at Grand County Middle School. Superintendent Stroder, the School Board, Principal Cari Caylor, the teachers and staff who have worked to improve things, the Rainbow Club volunteers as well as committed community members like Marcy Till should all be praised for this. These changes are ahead of most of the state of Utah, as well as many other places in the nation. Praise them! Thank them! Encourage and support them!

A survey created by Jenifer Evers, clinical assistant professor of Social Work at USU-Moab, and Katelyn Finley, social studies teacher at GCHS, will be given to hear students opinions on their school’s culture and their own sense of safety. To improve accountability and transparency, I urge readers to encourage the school district to post the summary of the survey’s results publicly. The information should also be used to evaluate and revise policies as needed.

Grand County School District now has therapists in every school. This is a major improvement and a critical step toward ensuring real safety and a healthy school culture for all students. The therapists express feeling supported and encouraged by the growing relationships and collaborations with teachers and staff. Our community should encourage the school board to continue to support and seek the professional insight only the therapists can offer with regard to policy and practice.

Another area of progress that has been the result of many dedicated people is visibility. There are more “safe zone” stickers on class doors and Rainbow Club volunteers have offered time and love to provide LGBTQ+ youth and their allies with a sense of belonging, value and community. Students report a greater sense of peer support that didn’t exist before. This would have changed things for Lily and given her hope.

The district also created a staff position of Community Coordinator and has been blessed by the work of Mallory Nassau in that role. This is a positive step toward greater accountability and transparency. If you’d like to get involved in community collaboration with the district, contact Mallory at 435-719-4765.

The Grand County School District still needs to improve on staff training, improving policies and continuing efforts toward greater accountability and transparency. While there have been some improvements in these areas, more needs to be done.

If you care, get involved. It is in the interest of all to have a school environment where all students are valued, belong and are safe. The result is an environment where students truly thrive.

To learn more, please go to lilyshopeforkindness.com