Jo Pfander has been working every year of her middle school career to make Harding Middle School a more inclusive place. She joined the Gay-Straight Alliance club when she started sixth grade.

“This club is like a family,” said the now 8th-grade student. “Our club is trying to make this school a safer place for anyone and everyone beyond the ‘norm’.”

GSA faculty sponsor and Language Arts teacher Rose Daugherty-Rudd started the club six years ago.

“It started as a lunch club with a few students who wanted a safe and chill place away from the cafeteria,” said Daugherty-Rudd. “Those first few years we weren’t sure what our mission or vision were, but since our beginning our club has grown so much.”

It’s a modest interpretation. This weekend, Daugherty-Rudd’s students will take home the Iowa Safe Schools GSA of the Year award during the annual gala at the Iowa Events Center. They are being recognized for their advocacy efforts, including developing lessons about inclusivity that have been implemented throughout the building, and talking with staff members during professional learning opportunities.

“Harding Middle School has always been a fantastic example of what a GSA at the junior high level should look like,” said IA Safe Schools Executive Director Becky Smith. “Creating a safe space for all students has always been their priority and we are excited to honor them this year.”

Harding principal Christopher Schmit gives a lot of credit to Daughterty-Rudd for keeping the club going.

“We are fortunate to have Rose Daugherty-Rudd as part of the Harding team,” said Schmit. “She is fantastic working with middle school students. She understands them and works to build a strong relationship with each student.”

Daughtery-Rudd hands the praise right over to her GSA club students, who number 20 this school year.

“We have spread our message to students by sharing videos and advisory materials to teach inclusion to students; hosting ‘Inclusion Days’ where students and staff could publicly pledge their support of LGBTQ+ youth; creating safe spaces through professional development, signs for classrooms, and selling our pins for fundraising opportunities; and so much more.”

Allycia Peck is in 7th grade and new to the GSA club this year. She’s excited to attend the awards ceremony this weekend.

“We are thankful for the award,” she said. “I feel like GSA is a happy community for our school, and I’m happy to be in it.”

Pfander added that the work is far from done.

“As a club, our members are trying to make people more comfortable being open by making signs and things for teachers to show they are allies,” Pfander said. “We also plan on having inclusive events for students and families. The goal of this is to educate families, teachers and other students about the LGBTQIA+ community.”

GSA member October Anderson says the Iowa Safe Schools award gives them fuel to continue their work.

“I can speak for everyone when I say we appreciate this so much,” Anderson said. “We plan on doing more to help advocate and teach about LGBTQIA+ youth, and this award will do nothing but help us continue.”

Daugherty-Rudd said she couldn’t be happier for all of her students.

“I am SO proud of every student – past or present – who is involved and makes our club an inclusive and brave space,” she said.

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