Schools Need to do More to Protect LGBT Students

SOURCE: The Portland Press Herald 10/16/10

Maine Voices
By Diane E. Kenty

Recent suicides across the nation by students who were targeted as gay, and the brutal anti-gay attack in New York City, have focused attention on the issue of safety for LGBT students.

We find that the use of degrading conduct and physical harassment toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students is pervasive in middle and high schools and, to a lesser extent, in elementary schools.

Anti-gay verbal harassment, slurs and put-downs are destructive to the school climate and to individual students in two ways. First, degrading language will escalate to increasingly serious misconduct if the language is not interrupted.

Serious violence toward LGBT students does not erupt out of a vacuum.

Rather, the violence is the result of a pattern of escalation from the routine use of degrading language to threats and finally to violence.

Second, separate from this process of escalation, students who are targeted with harassment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity often suffer serious emotional harm, including depression and anxiety.

Some of these students cope with the never-ending slurs by turning to self-destructive conduct, such as cutting or substance abuse.

Some lose out on their education because they begin missing school and then finally drop out. Sadly, some lose everything by taking their own lives.

The center’s work in schools focuses on empowering students to stand up for others — to stand up for civility and respect.

Our Unity Project is an intensive multiyear collaboration with schools to prevent bias and harassment.

We provide students with strategies and skills for low-key interventions when others pick on someone else.

In schools throughout Maine, we see straight students speaking up for gay students, gay students speaking up for students of color, students of color speaking up for Jews and Muslims, boys speaking up for girls who are being sexually harassed, and physically able students speaking up for disabled students.

Schools can take several important steps to protect the physical and emotional safety of gay students, including starting a gay-straight alliance and providing faculty and staff with information on the needs of LGBT students.

This fall, in partnership with the Maine Principals Association, the center is presenting the third annual conference for educators on responding to and preventing bias and harassment of gay students.

Adults in Maine must stand up for civility and respect too. We need to model the conduct we expect of children at school. Language and actions of community leaders have an impact.

Virulent anti-gay rhetoric may be useful to rally political supporters, but it has the effect of demoralizing LGBT youths and giving permission for demonizing and attacks.

No matter what views are held about proposed legislation or ballot issues, it is important to express opinions in a way that respects the identity of individuals.

Nasty words and TV images can erode a young person’s self-respect and make the future look bleak.

We can create schools that are safe for gay students at the same time we make schools safe for every student.

Our greatest resource for accomplishing this goal is the courage and empathy that lies within so many young people. Our task is to help them connect with and act upon that courage and empathy.

No child should feel so isolated and marginalized that he or she even considers suicide, much less actually take his or her own life. No child should feel scared to come to school.

Together, students, educators and parents can create schools that welcome every student: gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, straight, African- American, Latino, white, immigrant and refugee, native-born, girls and young women, boys and young men, Jews and Muslims, Catholics and Protestants, disabled students and more.

What is most remarkable about the process to change the school climate is that when adults offer support, students will lead the way.

Diane E. Kenty of Westbrook is president of the board of trustees of the Center for Preventing Hate.

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