While the social climate of any school is complex enough, Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender, or LGBT, students have additional barriers to overcome. Dealing with discrimination toward LGBT students is a very real concern for teachers and though students have come a long way, they can still be cruel to those that they perceive as different. Peers of LGBT students frequently single them out for bullying and physical and verbal abuse. The levels of harassment targeting LGBT students sometimes lead to absenteeism, and even to dropping out of school completely and never obtaining that very important high school diploma.
LGBT students of color are three times more likely to skip school because they do not view schools as safe places, adding to the achievement gap between the races that educational policymakers are so desperately trying to narrow.
So, how can we make our K-12 classrooms safe havens for LGBT students where they can learn and flourish alongside their peers? Here are just a few starting points:
Disallow discrimination based on sexual orientation. The National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development have all passed resolutions asking their members and all school districts to step forward to improve the educational experiences of LGBT students. These resolutions call for providing a safe environment, support groups, and counseling options for LGBT students and by employing anti-harassment rules and practices. In nine states, the state government has instituted legislation prohibiting the harassment and discrimination of LGBT students. We need to continue this trend until every state has these rules in place, in every district and school -- no exceptions.
Expand "inclusion" policies. There are some schools in which LGBT students are accepted and accommodated. Same-sex couples are invited to school dances and there are unisex washrooms for transgender students. School districts in some states include LGBT students in non-discrimination policies with the goal of making schools safe places for all students, parents, faculty and staff. However, there are also states where it is illegal to even utter the word homosexual and in which the word homosexual (or lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender) can only be portrayed in a negative light within the classroom. This makes it difficult for teachers to teach about sexual orientation diversity or to make their classrooms and school environment safe and accepting of LGBT students. Regardless of location, teachers can explain to students that they don't have to agree it is okay to be gay or lesbian, but they do have to agree that it is not okay to discriminate against them.
Promote LGBT student groups. It is important that all students, regardless of who they are or their sexual orientation, have a safe environment in which to learn and grow as an individual. Gay and lesbian organizations have been at the forefront of trying to create safe and accepting environments for LGBT students. Students have also taken up the cause and student groups have begun springing up in schools all over the country. There are currently approximately 4,000 Gay-Straight Alliance Groups registered with the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN). These groups are alliances between straight and LGBT. They work together to support each other and promote education as a means for ending homophobia.
Biased and homophobic comments are rampant in many schools, with a staggering 90 percent of LGBT students experiencing verbal harassment related to their sexual orientation. This is unacceptable. By schools taking the reins on this issue, real change will eventually be realized.
What do you believe are some additional steps that can be taken to improve the school environment for LGBT students?