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.

  • Chyna Simon

    I appreciate the concern about student suicides because of bullying and unfair treatment. However, there should be the same level of outrage for ALL bullying – whether girls caught fighting on tape or a child being beaten to death in front of a mob in Chicago. What disturbs me is that because these recent incidents involved gay students there’s now a larger call to action.

    Bullying is bullying! Period.

  • I agree that bullying should not be allowed anywhere. I do not agree that it is the school’s place to teach about one’s sexual preference. That is a home matter that should include psychology counseling for the whole family and religious guidance and counseling. This is a private matter. We don’t encourage hetersexual behavior at schools. In fact your taught it is a private matter left in the bedroom. We are suppose to be giving advice of abstince not PDA. WE do have a science class that talks about sexual safety and consequences if not following abstince. WE have free clinics where parents can take their kids for medical advice. Again, it is not the school’s place to be taking on a parent’s sexual preference nor a child’s sexual confusion!!! We are already doing more than teaching in our public schools and the government and parents SAY we aren’t good enough??????
    You won’t find a charter school or private school accepting our special needs children and now our sexual preference difference children!

  • Matthew

    I do not think you get the point of this article, Genia. The issue at hand is not teaching sexual preference, better known as sexual orientation, in the classroom. The issue at hand is combating bullying of LGBT students. These students face numerous difficulties in their lives that others do not, and as teachers, we need to create an environment where these students feel as safe as all the other students. It is our responsibility to keep our students safe and it is our responsibility to create an inclusive learning environment. This does includes teaching tolerance and respect for all people. Genia, you are completely off base when you state that we don’t “encourage heterosexual behavior at schools”, implying that this encourages homosexual behavior. It absolutely does not. All it does is teach tolerance and respect. And every person that comes out of our schools should live by those ideals. When we allow bigotry to exist in the school, we are failing at what our job is: creating knowledgable and respectful students that will positively contribute to their community and to others. Allowing people to attack and bully LGBT students is wrong and it needs to be stopped.