The past several weeks have seen the suicides of at least four American teenage students (two just 13 years old) who were harassed and bullied because they were, or were thought to be, gay. It’s a part of our schools that we urgently need to change.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students face a unique set of safety concerns each day. Over 85 percent report being harassed because of their sexual or gender identity, and over 20 percent report being physically attacked. The suicide rate for LGBT students continues to be 3-4 times higher than that of their straight counterparts.
These tragedies have become painfully foreseeable. Until school environments are made safe for LGBT students, we will predictably see a new series of suicides each fall as tormented students return to school and to their bullies. That’s why I and my colleagues at the National Education Policy Center asked two experts to come up with clear policy recommendations to address these safety concerns.
The result is a policy brief and model code language released this past week at an event held at the National Education Association (NEA) headquarters in Washington DC: Safe at School: Addressing the School Environment and LGBT Safety through Policy and Legislation, written by Stuart Biegel and Sheila James Kuehl, and co-sponsored by the UCLA Williams Institute and with funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice. The policy brief explains the research about school safety, offers concrete recommendations that follow from the research, and then presents model statutory code language that implements the recommendations and that can be adopted by state legislators wanting to address these safety issues.
A month ago, before these suicides, the Denver Post ran an article describing how Colorado Springs’ “Focus on the Family” is pushing back against anti-bullying efforts that it perceives as part of the “gay agenda.” Professor Biegel said something to me that I included in our press release and that is worth repeating here: “In this area, educators are not required to change their personal values or religious beliefs. However, all students must be treated with equal dignity and equal respect by school officials, both under the law and as a matter of morality and common decency.”
Below, I summarize the brief, but I hope readers will click through and read the whole thing. It’s available online at http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/safe-at-school.
The brief documents, among other things:
- Recurring examples of traumatic peer mistreatment, often with faculty complicity.
- The resulting harm to the academic achievement and aspirations of LGBT students.
- Lives lost, both directly through assaults and indirectly through suicide.
The brief also presents evidence of structural and institutional failures such as:
- Failure to recognize that LGBT educators can play valuable, positive roles.
- Failure to address the persistent overt homophobia in many school sports programs.
- Misuse of the special education system, which further exacerbates LGBT mistreatment.
- Minimal coverage of LGBT issues in many teacher-education and professional development programs.
The recommendations from Biegel and Kuehl include:
- Adopt proactive school climate initiatives that demonstrate a commitment to inclusive policies and shared values within our pluralistic society.
- End discriminatory disciplinary practices and the inappropriate referral of LGBT students to special education.
- Implement LGBT-specific programs or activities at individual school sites, which may include safe zones, gay-straight alliances, and suicide prevention programs.
- Develop and implement LGBT-related professional development, locally determined and agreed upon by faculty and staff, for all school-site personnel.
- Align classroom pedagogy with shared values and respect for differences.
- Include age-appropriate LGBT-related content in the curriculum.
- Involve key members of campus athletic programs in LGBT-related initiatives.
- Make it clear that homophobic comments and actions by coaches and student athletes are completely unacceptable.
- Encourage student athletes to participate in targeted programs such as initiatives addressing bullying and hate violence, as well as gay-straight alliances, safe zones, and wellness programs.
The model code presented in the brief builds on the research findings and policy recommendations. It contains a range of options for state legislatures to adopt, including general prohibitions against bullying, harassment, and intimidation in the schools, general prohibitions against discrimination in the schools, and specific prohibitions barring discrimination against and mistreatment of LGBTs. Also included are ideas for statutory policies that may be adopted pursuant to such prohibitions, and sections addressing teacher education and professional development.
Safe at School documents the persistence of hostile and unsafe school environments that can result in lower educational outcomes and higher rates of depression and suicide for LGBT students. Kids are hurting and are dying. It’s time to act.
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