BY AJ TRAGER
TROY – Educators, school administrators, activists, students and others working in the state school system gathered Jan. 29 for the fifth annual Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Initiative, a conference to discuss the next steps required in creating safe and inclusive climates in classrooms, schools and school districts.
The Michigan Organization on Adolescent Sexual Health, GLSEN Southeast Michigan chapter, Ruth Ellis Center and presenters from educational institutions such as the Wayne State University College of Education, WSU School of Medicine, Oakland University, Dakota High School, Seaholm High School and the Michigan Department of Education all attended the conference to participate in 16 different workshops or group discussions.
The day-long event was kicked off by John Austin, president of the Michigan State Board of Education, who announced SBE support and leadership in efforts to bring forward new policies and practices to better meet the needs of LGBT youth in Michigan.
“Michigan needs to embrace all our young people and create environments in our schools and communities that helps them feel safe, welcomed and able to tune in and learn,” said Austin. “Our educators are looking for guidance on the best practices and policies that can meet the needs of transgender students. I thank you for working with us at the state to provide this needed guidance.”
Austin has asked the superintendent, with the help of Michigan educators, to develop new policy guidance to school districts based on the best research and practice in the field.
“It is terrific that a growing number of students are comfortable coming forward with the fact that they have a non-traditional gender and sexual identity; but our schools are looking for guidance on the services and support they need, on issues ranging from bathroom use to counseling and teacher training,” said Austin.
Under state law, Michigan schools are required to implement model anti-bullying policies to protect the rights of LGBT students. These policies were first promulgated by the SBE in 2003 but have since diminished unsafe learning environments for LGBT youth. The state has a long way to go before bullying and anti-LGBT mindsets are eradicated from the school system. The SBE will issue additional LGBT policy guidance in the next several months.
The keynote address was delivered by Sean Kosofsky, executive director of the Tyler Clementi Foundation. Ever since Tyler Clementi took his life in 2010 after enduring much harassment for being gay, his family has been dedicated to creating a new story of inclusion, dignity and acceptance for other LGBT youth and focuses its work on bullying and how best to address the needs of vulnerable populations, especially LGBT youth.
LGBT youth experience bullying on the internet and not just at school, Kosofsky said, and introduced the concept of being an “upstander,” or someone who intervenes when they witness someone being bullied. Kosofsky said that this is one of the main ways the culture can help shift what it means to perpetuate a culture that influences bullying.
“All social science says that we don’t intervene,” he said. “We all say, ‘It’s not my problem.’ We all rationalize why we aren’t helping. It is human nature to not intervene.”
Reporting an incident of bullying to the internet moderators or to someone else in school or a place of employment can really make an imprint on the person being bullied. Kosofsky said that one never knows what someone else is going through.
“Reaching out to someone who is enduring something difficult is so transformative,” he said.
In an effort to not duplicate current programs assisting in the LGBT youth sector, the Tyler Clementi Foundation has designed some budding programs to help bridge the gap in care for LGBT youth experiencing bullying.
The foundation has partnered with a New York law school to provide free legal assistance and possibly litigation in cases of bullying, in a new program called the Tyler Clementi Institute for Internet Safety. The program will be launched online sometime in the next few weeks.
“We believe that the burden for preventing bullying has been placed exclusiviely on the schools. We think the parents can help, too,” Kosofsky said.
In another program, the Foundation has also started reaching out to parents. Partnering with an employment assistance program based out of North Carolina, which does trainings all over the world, the foundation will educate and train parents at their workplace to recognize if their child is the bully or the one being bullied.
Kosofsky was hired as the Foundation’s first hired position last fall. He served as the director of policy for the Triangle Foundation (now Equality Michigan). Kosofsky helped introduce and build support for the eventual passage of Michigan’s anti-bullying statute, Matt’s Safe Schools Law.
Executive Director of Equality Michigan, Stephanie White, served as emcee for the event.
The conference is a project of the School of Education and Human Services at Oakland University. The SOGI Initiative aims to provide a safe and welcoming environment; to create a more supportive and inclusive campus climate that encourages the suggestions of all students, staff, faculty and administrators regardless of sex, gender identity or sexual orientation; to increase awareness of the realities that face LGBT people; and to advocate for the larger LGBT community. The initiative provides supportive, educational outreach and community events and facilitates networking opportunities for LGBT and allied individuals. To learn more and to get involved in future events, go to https://www.oakland.edu/sogi/.