Providing Safe Environments for All Students

07/18/2012 09:52 am ET | Updated Sep 17, 2012

For a little over four years I worked as an adjunct professor in the Graduate School of Education at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY. I taught classes in the evening as a way to branch out from being an elementary school teacher during the day. The class was called Foundations of Education and it was one of the first classes students had to take during their master's program. The class covered many subjects, one of which was sexual diversity in schools.

I found myself nervous about covering the subject of sexual diversity because I was not sure I would be prepared for the reaction. I had only been teaching the class for a few weeks and I was convinced that the students were going to erupt in anger and boycott my class for bringing up the topic, although it was clearly addressed in the book.

As an elementary school teacher, LGBT issues did not regularly come up in school. I worked in a city school and there were no known LGBT parents. In this college class, I felt like I was going it alone as I began the conversation. As I prepared myself for their reaction, I looked around at their body language, and I was underwhelmed.

Most of the students did not think it was a big deal. This was post '90s after a few well-known celebrities came out. It was long after Will and Grace and Ellen Degeneres. The students were from a generation of much more socially conscious young adults. It was a bit different than many of the adults of my generation.

As the class went on I learned that many had gay friends or family members. I walked away from the class feeling a bit more inspired and as though life has changed. We went from a society who hated, to a society who didn't discuss it, to a society who openly accepted gay men and women. I had a euphoric sense that I was part of a new society and was proud.

Has Society Changed?

We have become a much more accepting society. We no longer tolerate people, we accept them. As I taught more classes I met more and more students who were accepting and it gave me the faith that, as teachers, these students would be open to diversity and teach about LGBT issues. Unfortunately, it did not happen as often as I thought it would. Many of these students entered into buildings where colleagues were not as open and administrators turned their heads to LGBT issues.

That can happen in schools. New minds collide with strong beliefs and someone loses out. There are examples of schools that do an amazing job bringing together diverse populations. Novice teachers and veteran ones mix together, share ideas and create safe environments for students. In most schools, this does not happen. There has been a disconnect between those I taught in graduate courses, and those who protect kids that come into school.

In a GLSEN study, which surveyed 7,261 students between the ages of 13 and 21, they found that "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. 72.4% heard homophobic remarks frequently or often at school (2009)." That type of statistic, which still holds true in 2012 should not still happen given the number of open-minded and accepting pre-service teachers we have entering the field.

As I walked away from my adjunct experiences, and reflect upon them now, I realize that I was preaching to the choir and was surrounded by students who believed the same thing that I did; all students deserve to be treated with equality and fairness. As much as it is wonderful to hear about high profile celebrities who come out, which is really important for young gay men and women looking for people to identify with, there are still many students who enter schools every day where they lack supportive teachers and administrators.

Being a school administrator, which I have been for six years, is tough because we often have to answer to the public when they do not like what we are doing. Administrators have to find ways to make teachers, parents and students happy, knowing full well that it is an impossible job to do. They have to put aside their beliefs in order to make sure that all students feel as though they belong. Unfortunately, this does not always happen for LGBT youth. It is the LGBT youth who have to put aside their beliefs in order to fit in. Not all schools are created equally and many do not create safe environments that keep all students safe.

In the End
It may seem strange to many that in a society where well-known people can come out that we would still have such an issue in school. To others, it is much easier to say that we should not segregate between heterosexual and LGBT issues. We should treat everyone the same. As much as that sounds like a great idea, we are a decade away from that. We need to address the harassment that LGBT students feel before it will ever go away.

Being a public school teacher or principal is a difficult job. Most schools have had their budgets cut which means that they are being forced to cut programs, teachers and administrators. Without those important programs, many students will not receive the well-rounded education they deserve. Without teachers and administrators, many students enter schools at risk of being bullied and abused. LGBT students are at risk of that happening.

In the public school system, we are being hit with Common Core State Standards, new teacher and administrator evaluation and many other mandates that force accountability. It makes it easy for those who lead to say they lack the time to deal with LGBT issues. However, parents send their children to school to learn and they expect them to be safe. All parents have those expectations, and it is our job as public school educators to make sure that happens.

Peter will be providing a free webinar with Corwin Press on August 1st at 1:00 p.m. PST.