According to the American Institutes for Research, "[a]n estimated 2.7 million adolescents who are lesbian, gay, or bisexual live in the United States." Do they feel safe when they go to school?
The state of New York has the Dignity for All Students Act. California adopted the Fair Education Act, and in 2011 Washington State adopted RCW 28A.300.285. All these laws specifically state that schools must have codes of conduct and school board policies that address how they will safeguard students who are bullied and harassed based on sexual orientation and gender expression.
If you believe that such bullying doesn't happen, or that it is just part of being a kid, you're wrong. Kids who are abused or bullied don't feel safe and cannot learn to their full potential. Their parents send them to school to learn and expect them to be safe. Safeguards are not just for straight students.
Schools across all three states quickly adopted those policies, and then most of them did nothing else. They had excuses: At the same time that some of these laws were being passed, schools were scrambling to adopt the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and new Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR). APPR stipulates how teachers and administrators will be evaluated, and it is often tied to high-stakes testing. Those are real issues for schools, but so is keeping students safe.
How Good are Policies?
School board policies and codes of conduct are a great first step, but they aren't worth the paper they are written on if schools do nothing else. Many of these schools did not create gay-straight alliances (GSAs). Why? GSAs are an after-school activity, which is typically a paid position for an advisor, and many of those positions were cut after schools saw major budget cuts. There are some teachers who went on and advised their GSA despite not getting paid for it.
The dirty little secret for school administrators is that they know when they can be reactive and when they can appear to be proactive. To many on the outside looking in, laws like DASA and the Fair Education Act make it look as though schools get it. It appears as though schools are taking a tough stance because they have policies, but most administrators are not going to look to see if LGBT students feel protected. They wait until a student complains to them about being harassed. Some administrators believe that if students or parents do not speak up, there must not be a problem.
The reality is that most students who are being bullied and harassed are not going to speak up. They are scared that adults will not do anything about it. They know whether their school is safe. They understand whether their school has an inclusive culture or a hostile one. Students who are bullied because they are LGBT, or perceived as being LGBT, fear that the abuse will get worse if they tell. A 2011 study by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) found the following:
[T]he majority of LGBT students are faced with many obstacles in school affecting their academic performance and personal well-being. Results indicated that 8 out of 10 LGBT students (81.9%) experienced harassment at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation, three fifths (63.5%) felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation and nearly a third (29.8%) skipped a day of school in the past month because of safety concerns.
In order for DASA, the Fair Education Act and RCW 28A.300.285 to really work, schools must create GSAs for high school and middle school. Sadly, another dirty little secret is that most principals will not create a GSA for students. They wait for students to come to them to say there is a need. If they don't hear from students, they think there must not be a need. What LGBT students don't understand is that they have a right to create a GSA based on the federally adopted Equal Access Act of 1984. If schools deny students the right to create a GSA, they can lose school funding.
Schools could take it one step further and include LGBT-related topics in their curricula and offer books with LGBT storylines in their libraries. However, if the school climate is hostile or the school administrator is unsupportive, school librarians will be less likely to purchase LGBT-related books.
In 2009 Debra Lau Whelan, senior editor of School Library Journal, wrote, "In the first survey of its kind, School Library Journal (SLJ) recently asked 655 media specialists about their collections and found that 70 percent of librarians say they won't buy certain controversial titles simply because they're terrified of how parents will respond."
Books play an important role in the lives of students, even if they don't like to read. When teachers read books aloud to students or teach lessons around the subject matter of diverse books, students are exposed to a world they never knew existed. For an LGBT student who lacks LGBT role models because they do not know other people from the LGBT community, books can offer a sense of hope.
Equally as important is the fact that LGBT-related books can bring about a level of understanding for straight students as well. In life, whether it's through personal connections or through the workplace, everyone is exposed to someone who is LGBT. Literature is a way to bridge the gap of understanding.
Unfortunately, most librarians self-censor what appears in their library because they fear community pushback, especially when they know they will not get community support. Even with laws such as DASA, the Fair Education Act and RCW 28A.300.285, self-censorship takes place in schools across the country. As Whelan wrote in 2009:
The American Library Association's (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom only documents written challenges to library books and materials (there were 420 cases in 2007), and even then, it estimates that only one out of five cases are reported. But when it comes to self-censorship, it's almost impossible to quantify because no one is monitoring it or collecting stats, and there's no open discussion on the subject.
In the End
At least states like New York, California and Washington have laws that safeguard students. States like Tennessee are trying to introduce what has been dubbed the "don't say 'gay'" bill into legislation. Laws like these are obviously discriminatory and, quite honestly, pathetic. All states should have safeguards so that all students feel safe and all families feel welcome.
State laws, codes of conduct and school board policies are great first steps in the process of safeguarding and bringing equality to LGBT students. However, they are not enough. School superintendents and principals must do their part by creating inclusive school environments. They need to create GSAs, encourage LGBT-related curricula and make sure that all their students feel safe in school.
Follow Peter DeWitt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PeterMDeWitt