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Steve Ralls

Steve Ralls

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Welcoming An Education Secretary Who Champions Safe Schools

Posted: 12/17/08 10:47 AM ET

In Gus Van Sant's film Milk, Sean Penn, portraying the slain San Francisco Supervisor, asks a young Cleve Jones (played by Emile Hirsch in the film) what it was like being a young, gay man attending high school in red state Arizona.

"Did the jocks beat you up?"

"I faked a lung condition to get out of gym class," Jones responds.

It is an answer that countless gay movie goers could no doubt empathize with. In America - in both the red states and the blue - the school experience can be one fraught with anxiety, danger and fear for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people. LGBT students tell researchers they hear "faggot" almost every day . . . that they are threatened, harassed and intimidated . . . and that it is virtually impossible to learn in a classroom where you are forced to choose between learning math or avoiding a bully.

For young gay people, classrooms, hallways, cafeterias and locker rooms become dark corridors and alleys where an attacker is always waiting just around the corner.

That very danger, and the consequences of not taking concrete action to protect LGBT students, came to a head when, last year, an Oxnard, California student was gunned down in a classroom by a classmate who believed he was gay. The case of Lawrence King, a young, gender non-conforming boy who dared to express himself as he saw fit, blew the cover off the façade that America's schools are safe havens where parents can assume their LGBT children will be properly cared for, and learn. The King case ignited a firestorm of controversy, placing the issue of school safety in the headlines, and prompting a still on-going case of finger pointing and blame.

Unfortunately, it did little to rally parents, school administrators or activists to actually come together and agree on a plan.

That, however, may be about to change, courtesy of committed parents . . . and one very promising political appointee who may be about to give them a place at the table.

Earlier this month, Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) - a national, grassroots organization with more than 500 chapters and affiliates across the country - announced an innovative new Safe Schools program that has already been tested in Ohio and Tennessee. The initiative, called Cultivating Respect, is aimed at rallying parents to become involved in their local school districts, to build relationships with school administrators, and to use those newly open doors to introduce concrete, common-sense ideas about protecting LGBT students to educators and administrators alike. Throughout 2009, the group will train parents to educate educators and play an important, ongoing role in the life of their local school communities.

When local parents prioritize Safe Schools measures and demand action, the group reasons, school administrators will take them seriously. And unlike the months following King's murder, when national organizations debated local school policies, the PFLAG initiative empowers local parents to organize - and lead - in their local communities.

"Cultivating Respect is the very first program designed to identify and mobilize a grassroots network of parents and allies to take an active role in combating anti-gay behavior, policies, information and environments in their local schools," the group's executive director, Jody Huckaby, said in announcing the program. "When children do not feel safe, they cannot learn, and their school experience becomes fraught with the long-lasting effects of unchecked hostility. By working with local parents and local administrators, Cultivating Respect addresses community and school-specific concerns. This is a significant step forward in making our classrooms, hallways and locker rooms safer for every student."

That important step forward for parents comes as a new administration may be about to take a huge leap forward in protecting students, too.

The announcement this week that President-Elect Obama has chosen Arne Duncan, the head of Chicago's public schools system, to serve as Secretary of Education is also welcome news for parents who have been longing for an ally at the federal level. And Duncan's nomination is especially good news for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students and their families, too.

As the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, the third largest school district in the country, Duncan has been attuned to the pervasiveness of homophobic bullying and harassment and its negative impact on students, families and personnel who are or are perceived to be LGBT. He has been a proponent of organizing and professional development efforts in support of Safe Schools initiatives, too. And, Duncan has been a supporter of the work of the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, according to its executive director, Shannon Sullivan. The Alliance is a statewide non-profit in Illinois working to ensure the safety, well-being and healthy development of LGBT youth and all youth impacted by issues of sexual orientation and gender identity.

While some have posited that Duncan's support of an LGBT school in Chicago may present a bump along the road to confirmation, his support of grassroots work to improve school safety should be welcome news to parents and students alike. After eight years of a Department of Education that has left too many children - especially LGBT children - behind, a Duncan era could signal the first real opportunity, in decades, for concerned parents to have a seat at the table.

Duncan's confirmation, combined with a newly energized coalition of PFLAG parents working at the local level, could signal a whole new day for America's students and schools. And that would be change - and a champion - that everyone from Harvey Milk to Lawrence King could believe in.