THE BLOG
06/16/2016 04:20 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Safe Learning Environments For LGBTQ Students In A Post-Orlando America

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By Jessica Toste and Brad Palmertree

The safety needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students turned paramount Sunday when a man walked into a gay nightclub and embarked on the worst shooting in U.S. history.

If the symbolism of this atrocity taking place at a bar is lost on you, let us assure you it is not lost on the LGBTQ community. Bars and nightclubs have long served as some of the only spaces where queer people have felt safe. To be sure, this tragedy brings up issues that need to be addressed by our political system -- like gun violence and domestic terrorism.

But it's also time to stop ignoring the slurs and name calling that happens in school hallways. It's time to stop diminishing the affirmation and acceptance of queer people for fear of making someone uncomfortable. It's time to stop forgetting that our very existence continues to be a hard-won battle.

Let's use this time to address the hate against LGBTQ people that continues to run rampant in our society. Hate that trickles down into our schools.

The need for a safe space starts at school for LGBTQ students.

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These safe spaces might be as informal as a supportive teacher or a group of close friends. If they are lucky enough to have support from the school's administration, some might form or join an inclusive and affirming student-led organization like a Gay-Straight Alliance. These are great places for a young person who is struggling to find comfort and support.

Unfortunately, this isn't enough. Every space should be a safe space for an LGBTQ young person.

If you're an educational professional walking into a school or a classroom, ask yourself: As millions of LGBTQ young people step out into the world today, what kind of world do they see? Do we want them to exist in a world where their community members and school leaders waste time, energy, and resources arguing about transgender people making someone "uncomfortable" in a bathroom? Do we want them to exist in a world where months of vicious political hate and vitriol at their community's expense is earmarked by a mass shooting of historical proportions? What are you doing to educate against this hate in your classroom, school and community learning spaces?

As an educational leader in your community, you are in a unique position to mitigate against the harmful effects of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and policy proposals while promoting acceptance, compassion, and humanity.

The first steps to an LGBTQ-affirming school environment begin within. Does your school promote an environment of acceptance? Does your overall philosophy of learning and community intentionally include historically marginalized groups of people?

Second, does your school have written policies that include the needs of LGBTQ students and staff? Are LGBTQ students and staff protected from discrimination, harassment and violence? A strong policy should detail how students and staff report and respond to such instances. Trans and gender non-conforming youth should also have policies affirming their ability to use names, pronouns, dress codes and school facilities in a way that corresponds to their gender identity.

Third, great policies beget great programs. Is there a GSA or other similarly named student organization that emphasizes love and acceptance of all students, especially those who need it most? School counselors and therapists should be well-equipped to work with the needs of LGBTQ youth. Prom and other school dances should be open to all, regardless of whom they bring or what they wear.

Finally, the practices of teaching and classroom management have never been more important. In an increasingly diverse and open world, educators have the ability to build bridges between identities and communities. How do you react when a student physically or verbally harasses another student because of their LGBTQ identity? Classroom conversations can be built in an effort to "call-in" negative behavior and attitudes. Include LGBTQ people and events in your curriculum. Health teachers should include issues that are inclusive of the unique needs of LGBTQ adolescents. The movement for LGBTQ rights should be taught alongside other historical civil rights movements. For examples of how to easily do this, GLSEN's Ready, Set, Respect! (Grades K-5) and Safe Space Kit (Grades 6-12) can be downloaded.

While many have argued that marriage equality marked the end of the need for an LGBTQ rights movement, the community is under no illusion it has suddenly become safe to exist as a queer person. LGBTQ youth are still being exiled from their homes. Trans women of color are still being murdered. LGBTQ couples are still wary of holding hands in public.

When the largest mass shooting in U.S. history happens in what has always been a safe space for our community, that is terrifying. That is numbing. That is enraging.

Let's prove to all our students that school can be their safe space.

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An earlier version of this article appeared in The Hechinger Report.

Jessica Toste, PhD, is a Public Voices Fellow and an assistant professor of special education at the University of Texas at Austin. She serves as chairwoman of the Austin Chapter and National Advisory Council of the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network (GLSEN).

Brad A. Palmertree, MSW, is Director of Program and Service Development for Children's Advocacy Centers of Tennessee. He is an LGBTQ rights activist and founded the Middle Tennessee Chapter of GLSEN.