Safe Schools for Gay Students

In the wake of a gay New Jersey student jumping to his death off the George Washington Bridge anda gay California teen hanging himself from a backyard tree, the authors of a new policy brief addressing safe schools for gay and lesbian students reported their recommendations to an audience of educators and advocates at the National Education Association.

Their briefing, “Safe at School: Addressing the School Environment and LGBT Safety through Policy and Legislation,” couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. Since the school year has started, several gay students – all victims of bullying and harassment at school – have committed suicide, noted Eliza Byard, executive director of GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

“I see these incidents as lynchings – because it’s so foreseeable that bullying and harassment will turn into suicides, it’s hard not to see them as lynchings,” said Kevin Wellnar, executive director of the National Education Policy Center, one of the partners – along with the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice and the Williams Institute –in the briefing’s publication.

The briefing does two things: First it shows clearly in research provided by co-author Professor Stuart Biegel of the University of California Los Angeles that the mistreatment of gay students harms their academic achievement and lives. It also shows that schools have failed to recognize the positive roles that can be played by gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning educators, failed to address the systemic misplacement of GLBTQ students in special education and also the particular homophobia in school sports.

His recommendations include:
•    A new focus on inclusive school climate;
•    An end to discriminatory and inappropriate special education referrals;
•    The implementation of GLBTQ-specific programs, like safe zones, gay-straight student alliances, and suicide prevention programs.

The second thing the briefing does is to marry these kinds of school-site initiatives with the promise of legislation to prohibit bullying and harassment. Co-author Sheila Kuehl, a former California state senator and attorney, provides model code language with various options and urges advocates to build on the research findings to say to legislators, “This is why we’re doing this.”

Not every state will embrace specific prohibitions related to GLBTQ students, she noted, but it’s very possible to find success with general prohibitions against bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination in schools.

The NEA also supports the federal Safe Schools Improvement Act, an anti-bullying act introduced to the U.S. House and Senate that would require better reporting of bullying incidents and provide grant money for anti-bullying programs. It also includes protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. To learn more and lend your support, go here.

The NEA has a long history of supporting its GLBTQ educators and their students, noted NEA Executive Director John Wilson – and it will continually to persist in its efforts, “until every child feels safe in America’s schools.” Added Ruben Murillo, president of the Clark County Education Association, “The bottom line is our students in our classrooms. How do we reach them?”

Earlier this week, Campus Pride also released its national survey of LGBTQ faculty, students and staff in higher education, “2010 State of Higher Education for LGBT People,” a report that shows that over a tenth (13 percent) are fearful for their physical safety, that nearly a quarter (23 percent) have been harassed, and that one-third (33 percent) have seriously considered leaving their institutions because of a homophobic campus climate.

One student reported being called “a tranny freak,” “physically assaulted,” and that the university was “less than responsive.” Another said, “Our floor in my dorm had ‘about me’ signs on everyone’s door, to get to know each other. Someone wrote ‘dyke’ on mine.”

According to report author Susan Rankin, colleges should do the following to improve campus climate for GLBT people: offer gender-neutral bathrooms, quickly respond to harassment of GLBTQ people, and include both sexual and gender identity in their nondiscrimination statements.

Combating homophobia means creating an environment where GLBTQ students and faculty can work and learn. “Students learn better in a friendly campus climate. That’s not rocket science,” she said.