Embracing Inclusivity

Dr. Rupak Gandhi shares how Fargo Public Schools is standing up for all kids with purpose and pragmatism.

By SchoolCEO Last Updated: January 26, 2024

During Dr. Rupak Gandhi’s five years at the helm of North Dakota’s Fargo Public Schools, he’s kept a sharp focus on inclusivity. So when new state legislation impacting an already vulnerable group was passed, the district responded by doubling down on their commitment to supporting all students. Here, Dr. Gandhi shares the reasoning behind this bold move and argues that doing the best thing for your schools means doing the right thing for kids.

As the superintendent of Fargo Public Schools, I am committed to doing whatever it takes to support our students. This includes ensuring that every student feels safe and welcome in our schools, regardless of their identity or background. So we’ve taken a proactive approach to inclusivity, with a recent emphasis on the LGBTQIA2S+ community. Our district’s firm stance on safeguarding the rights and dignity of transgender students, as outlined in our guiding philosophies, doesn’t just reflect our commitment to educational justice—it also allows us to market our schools as the inclusive environments they are.

This is not just about moral righteousness; it’s about pragmatism. At a time when families and educators are seeking nurturing learning environments, this stance distinguishes our schools. It makes us a magnet for those aligned with our values. Creating an inclusive environment is about more than just policy; it’s about culture. We have taken steps to build a culture of inclusivity that starts from the top and permeates through every level of our educational community. 

Some people have argued that our decision to support transgender students is not good for business. They say that it will alienate families and make it difficult to recruit and retain staff. However, I believe that the opposite is true: When schools create a sense of belonging for everyone, students and staff are more likely to want to be there. 

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Defining Our Standard 

This all began to unfold in April 2023, when a new anti-trans law (N.D.C.C. § 15.1-06-21) was passed by our legislature and signed by the governor. The law requires school personnel to out transgender students if their parents ask the school explicitly, and it prohibits trans students from using the restrooms of their choice without parental approval. It also allows teachers to ignore a student’s preferred pronouns. In short, this law requires educators and school districts to treat transgender students differently based solely on their gender identities.   

However, such actions would be in direct conflict with federal anti-discrimination laws and guidance from the United States Department of Education concerning transgender and nonbinary students. Since the U.S. Constitution allows it, we in Fargo Public Schools determined that federal law should take precedence over state law on this issue. This decision was rooted in the ethos of doing right by our students. 

To bolster our stance, we consulted legal experts and examined data from organizations like the Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention efforts for LGBTQIA2S+ youth. Their research on mental health has been instrumental in shaping our philosophies and inclusive practices, and has provided us with empirical evidence to defend our approach. For instance, suicide is a leading cause of death for young people ages 10 to 24, and LGBTQIA2S+ youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers. The Trevor Project estimates that more than 1.8 million LGBTQIA2S+ youth seriously consider suicide each year.  

I presented this data at a school board meeting just one day after the bill was signed into law. I also publicly announced our plan to continue supporting our LGBTQIA2S+ students:  

Unless directed by the board otherwise, it is my formal request, on record, that we are going to do what is right for kids. And when we see a conflict between federal law and state law, we are going to double down to advocate for our youth. It’s not against parents; it’s for kids. We will not openly out any student because of one law if we know that is going to cause harm to that child. Unless dictated by the board otherwise, we will not participate in anything that we think will subject students to further discrimination or increase their self-harm.

The board fully supported my request, and our decision made waves through the community, garnering public attention and inspiring dialogues around the pivotal role of school districts in fostering cultures of acceptance. While some viewed this as a difficult choice because of potential legislative and community backlash, our standard in Fargo Public Schools is to always do what is right for kids. We believe this was an easy decision to make—and the right one. 

We recognize that everyone is entitled to their beliefs. However, we will never place our own beliefs—whether they’re cultural, political, or faith-based—over the well-being of students. We must make sure every student can show up in our school buildings as their true, authentic selves—that they are heard, seen, accepted, and respected for who they are. 

Inclusivity as Good Messaging   

As we continue to uphold inclusivity in our schools, we are not just molding a generation of empathetic citizens. We are also heightening our district’s appeal as a vibrant, inclusive, and successful educational community. 

Naturally, this is a great play in terms of marketing our schools. Embracing inclusivity should be seen not as a liability, but as a strategic asset that can significantly enhance a district’s appeal to prospective families and talented educators. And while marketing isn’t the primary reason behind this decision, we are proud to share this message of inclusivity with our community and others. 

When a district actively champions the rights and well-being of all its students, it sends a robust message to the community, prospective families, and potential employees. It says, Here is a place where you belong, where your identity is respected and your contributions are valued. This powerful message pulls in students seeking acceptance and attracts a pool of dedicated, empathetic educators and staff—critical components for a thriving school district.

But the impact of our decision isn’t confined to the hallways of Fargo Public Schools. Our approach nurtures a culture of respect, understanding, and open dialogue among students, staff, and the larger community. It creates fertile ground for cultivating not just academic excellence but also social empathy and civic responsibility, attributes essential for the leaders of tomorrow. It’s naive to disenfranchise kids for 18 years—to tell them they can’t be who they are—and then expect them to come back and join the workforce. We are telling our community that because we recognize implicit bias, we have a responsibility to explicitly advocate for those who feel like they don’t belong, whether at school or in the workplace.  

FPS has received a lot of attention regarding our position, but we haven’t shied away from it. Using a data-driven approach to support our stance has only strengthened our commitment to inclusivity. So we always point to the many ways our district has put this standard into practice. 

For example, we explicitly communicate our FPS Philosophies, including our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion for all staff and students. These guiding philosophies are outlined on our website with supporting statements that cite research and legal precedence. They include policies like incorporating LGBTQIA2S+ people and issues into our schools’ curricula, providing materials in our libraries that are supportive of this community, and giving teachers the freedom to discuss these philosophies during class time. We have also implemented several initiatives across the district to support transgender and nonbinary students, such as providing gender-neutral bathrooms and allowing students to use their preferred pronouns. 

We want people to come here if this is where they feel safe. This has been a clear message of FPS for years. In fact, we were the first school district in North Dakota to hire a director of diversity, equity, and inclusion. More recently, we renamed that position to the director of educational justice. After all, that’s what we’re doing: We’re working to guarantee educational justice and success for everyone. 

This is something to be proud of and to publicize. So as superintendent, I take every opportunity I can to amplify our message and to cement the notion that embracing inclusivity is not a choice, but a duty. I recently shared part of our story on the TEDxFargo stage, and in 2022, I co-authored a letter to every Florida educators association, inviting teachers impacted by Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill to come to Fargo Public Schools. We aren’t perfect, but we like to share the many ways FPS strives to welcome, embrace, and celebrate everyone. 

An Opportunity, Not a Challenge 

My journey as the superintendent of Fargo Public Schools has been a testament to the power of prioritizing student safety and inclusivity. Even when it means navigating the complex interplay between federal and state laws, schools are responsible for the well-being of their students, and we should never shy away from making bold decisions when necessary. 

By doing this in Fargo, we’re continually working to create a culture of belonging where all students feel safe and respected. This is evident in our school climate surveys, which show that the majority of our students feel supported by their teachers and peers.

For far too long, LGBTQIA2S+ students and staff members have felt the impacts of systems rooted in implicit bias. But I’m proud to say that since we began overtly communicating our advocacy for this community, I’ve had a variety of interactions with stakeholders who expressed a greater sense of belonging in our schools. I’ve had the good fortune of hearing direct accounts of trans students choosing to enroll in our schools because of our stance. And I even had a school board member write to me about one of our students, a family member of his, who said they felt very supported by their teachers in FPS. 

As a result of our commitment to doing the right thing for students, Fargo Public Schools has seen a number of positive outcomes. We’ve added students seeking acceptance to our enrollment, and we’ve recruited talented new staff because of our explicitly stated values. At the start of this school year, I was approached by multiple new staff members who all chose to come work for FPS because of our advocacy and inclusivity. They went out of their way to let me know they’d left other employers or turned down other opportunities because they so strongly believed FPS was the right organization for them. 

To my peers in school leadership, let our story serve as a clarion call. I urge you to envision inclusivity not as a challenge, but as an opportunity to propel your schools into realms of unparalleled success and societal impact. It is imperative to foster district cultures rooted in respect, understanding, and inclusivity—ones that transcend legislative dichotomies. Here in Fargo Public Schools, we’re proving it’s possible to align moral imperatives with pragmatic district operations. 

We will not back down from our commitment to every student in our district. Like their classmates, transgender and nonbinary students deserve to feel safe and supported at school and in their communities. Doing the right thing is not always easy, but it’s always worth it. When schools value and create a sense of belonging for all students, everyone benefits.

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