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Dignity for All: Creating an Inclusive School Environment for LGBT Students

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84.6% of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 40.1% reported being physically harassed and 18.8% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation. (Key findings from GLSEN's 2009 National School Climate Survey)

In our present education times, with high-stakes testing, Common Core State Standards, and new evaluation procedures, educators and administrators are very busy trying to meet mandates that seem out of reach. However, even with all the increased pressures on schools today, a school administrator's number-one job is still, and always will be, creating a safe environment for all students, which includes LGBT students.

It is a school's obligation to provide all students with the opportunity to find their strengths and weaknesses, all in an effort to find themselves. There are adults who strongly believe being gay is a choice, when we know that it is not. LGBT students do not make a choice to be disowned from their families, ignored by their friends, and abused by their peers.

Unfortunately, many students across North America spend their formative years sitting in a classroom where they feel they cannot be who they truly are, out of fear of being harassed, tormented, and abused. Regardless of how many adults may work in the school, those students do not feel safe enough to reach out to any of them, and it is up to us to change that. It is time that we, as educators, make more of an effort to reach out to our students, and it is easier to do than some adults care to admit.

Inclusive Environments

Supportive administrators and teachers can change this sad reality for students by creating inclusive environments where students do not have to worry about being harassed, tormented, and abused. Inclusive environments are fairly easy to start, but because of the fear of community pushback, many administrators will not further causes that may be considered controversial, and specifically safeguarding LGBT students is one such topic.

Teachers are less likely to explore LGBT topics with students if they feel they will not get support from their administrators. As each group waits for the other to make a move, there are LGBT students who are being bullied or dying by suicide because they have reached their breaking point. It is a devastating thought that these young students feel that dying is the only way out of the pain they feel. It's time to change that and help these students in crisis. Quite frankly, the supports put in place for LGBT students are a net positive for all students.

The first and most important step toward an inclusive environment is through school board policies and student codes of conduct. Those policies and codes of conduct must specifically address that harassment based on sexual orientation and gender expression will not be allowed. The code of conduct should give specific examples of the punishment that will take place if students harass each other based on sexual orientation and gender expression. School board policies and codes of conduct are only as good as the administrators and teachers who follow them, so they must not be ignored.

Secondly, Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) should be placed in every school. GSAs involve gay and straight students and are facilitated by one or two supportive teachers. Brown University's Laura A. Szalacha wrote in a 2003 study, "In schools that have GSA's, students and school personnel report more supportive climates for LGBT students." Many schools block the creation of GSAs, which is illegal.

In unsupportive school districts, students and teachers do not feel comfortable forming GSAs, which is unfortunate because GSAs open up the dialogue between gay and straight students and teachers. Due to the Equal Access Act of 1984, a school that receives federal aid and has at least one student-led, extracurricular, after-school club must allow additional clubs to be organized and must give them equal access to meeting spaces and school publications.

Thirdly, a curriculum that explores LGBT issues should be part of schooling. This curriculum needs to be age-appropriate but can be as simple as including literature with same-sex parents or social studies debates that cover same-sex marriage, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and other hot-button LGBT issues. Although these issues are considered controversial, they need to be addressed. To leave them out of school discussions means that schools are ignoring the world outside their doors.

Lastly, teachers and administrators need training to understand the needs of diverse groups. There are LGBT community centers, trainers of diverse topics, and LGBT speakers who can help open up dialogue about these issues and help educators meet the needs of this student population. Professional development around this issue and other diverse issues will help foster an inclusive school community.

In the End

In a 1995 essay titled "The Case for a Gay and Lesbian Curriculum," Harvard University's Arthur Lipkin wrote:

No one should underestimate the value of teachers' including gay people when they talk with students about cultural diversity. Just hearing the words "homosexuality" or "gay/lesbian/bisexual" in an accepting context sends a powerful message to young people, and creates the potential for a tolerant environment.

Many schools across the United States are ignoring a percentage of their population for a variety of reasons. There are administrators who let their own personal biases get in the way of what is best for students, which directly affects those students. In many cases these students are being abused, and in other cases these students are dying. It's time to stop ignoring the problem and begin doing something about it. Taking steps to include safeguards for LGBT students is a way to protect these students when they face the harassment and abuse they most likely receive on a daily basis in their schools.