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Safe Schools

By |2008-01-17T09:00:00-05:00January 17th, 2008|News|

By Shaun Hittle

Earlier this year, students in various Canadian high schools showed up to school wearing pink shirts, dresses and other accessories in a show of support for a gay student who was harassed after a wearing a pink shirt to school.
Contrast that experience with the one had by Kalamazoo resident and LGBT advocate Adam Taylor, who was once harassed and bullied as a Michigan high-school student. Taylor, after coming out in high school, had “fag” painted on his locker, among other harassment. All of this, said Taylor, happened in front of teachers who stood by and did nothing.
Unfortunately, Taylor’s experience – at least in Michigan middle and high schools – is the norm, not the exception, according to a 2005 study conducted by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). The national study, which took a detailed look at the experience of LGBT students the state, found that “Michigan schools were not safe for many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students.” The study cited research showing that 72 percent of LGBT Michigan students felt unsafe in their schools.
Thankfully for these students, LGBT advocates are working to bridge the gap between tolerance and discrimination against LGBT students. Many groups, locally and nationally, are working at making schools more accepting of – and safe for – LGBT students. These efforts range from advocating for equal rights at the school-district level to individual efforts by teachers and community members.

Nationally

One example of what LGBT rights advocacy groups are doing nationwide is the work of the Safe Schools Coalition, based in Seattle which began its work in 1991.
Beth Reis, co-chair of the coalition, said her organization works with schools primarily in the Washington state area by providing training for teachers and other school employees regarding sexual diversity and LGBT rights. The trainings, which focus on handling bias-based harassment and violence, attempt to help school staff understand the language of LGBT issues and make classrooms more welcoming and safe.
Over the years, Reis has noticed a shift in the larger culture that has helped her organization grow and reach more students. “Training requests go up every year,” Reis said. “Schools are finally recognizing that they do have LGBTQ students.”

Michigan

In Michigan, there is a network of groups doing work similar to that of the Safe Schools Coalition. Locally, chapters of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) have been giving presentations to area schools regarding LGBT issues. Larry Jack, co-president of the Detroit chapter, said his group has been to two Birmingham high schools and recently has been approached by Detroit Public Schools about giving presentations.
The need, Jack explained, is as important as ever – as he has noticed some significant changes in the demographic of LGBT high-schools students. “Youth are coming out of the closet earlier and earlier,” he said.
Kathy Hull, vice president of the Ann Arbor chapter of PFLAG, also has been to some area schools to talk about her personal experiences with her son, who came out during his senior year of high school. Hull said she feels telling her personal story helps school staff understand what it’s like for students and parents who deal with LGBT harassment.
The work, said Hull, is aimed at creating a more welcoming environment for LGBT students. “It’s important so they know that there’s nothing wrong with them,” she said.
In addition to the programs different advocacy groups are running, individual teachers and school staff members are working in their classrooms and with their administrations to improve the environment in their schools.
Rob Koplan, an openly-gay teacher at a public alternative school in Ann Arbor, focuses on intervening when he hears gay slurs, as well as teaching about LGBT issues in his history class. Koplan said he feels it is important for students to have role models in their schools that support diversity.
“We set the example,” he said, adding that his students are always surprised to find out that he is openly gay.
While efforts go on in individual schools, organizations such as the Detroit-based Triangle Foundation work with advocates for policy changes at the state level. Currently, those efforts are aimed at getting anti-bully legislation that specifically includes sexual orientation passed in Michigan legislature.
Michigan State Sen. Glenn Anderson (D-Westland) has introduced legislation to that end. It would mandate that all Michigan school districts have an anti-bullying policy that specifically protects students based on LBGT status. The bill is known as “Matt’s Safe School Law,” in honor of Matt Epling, an East Lansing eighth-grade student who committed suicide in 2002 after a hazing incident. Anderson’s bill is awaiting movement in the Senate Education Committee, and a similar bill has already passed in the House.
The goal of such a bill, said Sean Kosofsky, policy director at the Triangle Foundation, is to “have a meaningful, enforced anti-bullying policy for all children.”

Lack of support

Koplan, however, notes that he is fortunate that his school administration has been consistently supportive of LGBT rights – support that is aided by the Ann Arbor school district’s anti-discrimination policy, which includes sexual orientation.
That support, according to other advocates, can be difficult to obtain in other areas around the state and the nation where school officials are reluctant to deal with anything having to do with sex or LGBT issues. Jack recalled a time when a school administrator asked him if his group was “recruiting” gay people in the school. “You mention the word ‘gay’ and they freak out,” Jack said.
Likewise, Greg Varnum, who works for the Triangle Foundation in the Youth Initiatives programs, said that school administrators repeatedly denied his attempts to get into schools.
“They don’t believe that there are LGBT students in their school,” he said.
LGBT advocacy groups aren’t the only ones facing the obstacle of school administration. Often, students who wish to start a gay-straight alliance (GSA) group in their school are denied, as well. Taylor talks of the problems he had when he came out as gay in high school and wanted to start a GSA. Taylor said the staff knew about the harassment he was facing, but did nothing about it.
“There was nowhere I could go,” said Taylor, adding that his school put up roadblocks wherever they could when he approached them about starting a GSA.

What can be done

For those teachers, parents and students thinking about taking some action in public schools around the state, Reis recommends a cautious assessment of the school environment. Reis said that she recently spoke to a school staff member who wanted to come forward and stand up for LGBT rights in her school, but was reluctant to do so because she did not have a guaranteed work contract and had an unsupportive principal.
But for those ready and able to step forward, there are many actions possible to help students looking for a safe and welcoming school environment. These actions can be as subtle as having posters in the classroom that feature a same-sex couple, to as drastic as sponsoring a GSA at a school.
Whatever the action, Reis believes that when teachers and community members stand up for LGBT rights, it benefits all students – not just those dealing with LGBT harassment. “Every kid has a different reason” for needing an accepting school environment, Reis said.

About the Author:

BTL Staff
Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.