According to LAMBDA GBLT Community Services, a nonprofit agency that works to eliminate hate crimes, violence and discrimination toward gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered persons, nine percent of all high school students identify themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual or questioning. Unfortunately, high school is a lonely and frightening place for most gay and lesbian students. A survey of high school students found that 97 percent had heard classmates make homophobic remarks and 53 percent had heard teachers make homophobic remarks. Nineteen percent of all gay and lesbian students report that they’ve experienced physical assaults at school; 15 percent were injured at school severely enough that they required medical attention. In such a climate, gay and lesbian students fear both physical and verbal abuse from classmates and verbal abuse from school staff. They also cannot count on school staff to protect them from abuse. It’s no wonder that 20 percent of gay and lesbian students say that they skip school at least once a month out of fear for their safety.
The question of how to make schools safe for gay and lesbian students, though, is more complex than it might seem at first glance. Not only do parents, school staff and community members disagree on how to make schools safe, they don’t even agree on whether or not any steps should be taken to make schools safe for these students. Some believe issues related to sexual orientation should be dealt with at home, not at school. Of course, such issues should be addressed at home, but since violence and abuse is taking place at school, it needs to be addressed there, as well.
For a number of years, I was the program coordinator for a violence prevention and intervention programs for adolescents at the YWCA of Cincinnati. Our program did a lot of work in the area of bullying in schools. We helped schools develop policies for dealing with bullying, taught school staff how to respond to bullying and also taught students how to address bullying if they saw it or experienced it themselves. We also provided services to students that had been identified by school staff as bullies.
Students are bullied for many different reasons, all of which should be addressed by schools. Here are a few things schools can begin to do in order to make schools safe for gay and lesbian students.
Institute a Zero Tolerance Policy Regarding Bullying
Many schools have zero tolerance policies regarding bullying anyway, but these policies are not always enforced when it comes to the verbal and physical abuse of gay and lesbian students. Any incidents of bullying should be addressed immediately, whether the bullying is directed at gay and lesbian students or at others.
Institute a Zero Tolerance Policy for Teachers, Too
Just as homophobic comments and teasing should not be tolerated from students, they should not be tolerated from teachers. Allowing teachers to bully gay and lesbian students, or allowing them to make negative comments or tell jokes about gay people, creates a hostile environment and encourages students to behave that way, too. Teachers are generally not permitted to make fun of students of different races or those with disabilities, and they should not be allowed to make fun of gay or lesbian students, either.
Provide Diversity Training for Teachers and Do Not Hire School Staff That Say They Are Not Comfortable Working with Gay and Lesbian Students and Colleagues
Teachers need to be comfortable working with all kinds of students, including those of different races and religions, those with disabilities, and those that are gay, lesbian, bisexual or questioning. Those that are not comfortable should not be working with children and adolescents, since there are bound to be some gay and lesbian students in any school. Diversity training can be provided to help school staff learn to address issues related to sexual orientation appropriate and to make them more away of the safety concerns faced by gay and lesbian students.
Consider the Formation of an Alternative School for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Questioning Students
Some school districts have formed alternative schools for gay, lesbian, bisexual and questioning students, like the Harvey Milk High School in New York City and the Alliance School in Milwaukee. It’s a somewhat controversial solution to the problem, but it does create safe and supportive schools for these students. Even in districts that do offer alternative schools, though, it’s important that all schools provide safe environments for all students. Some gay and lesbian students may opt not to attend an alternative school, perhaps because they don’t want to tell their parents of their sexual orientation or because they don’t want their classmates to know. These students still deserve a safe school experience and school staff has a duty to provide that.
LAMBDA GLBT Community Services. http://www.lambda.org/Gay_student_facts.htm. Gay, Lesbian, and Bi Teens: Students and Schools.
Harvey Milk High School. http://schools.nyc.gov/SchoolPortals/02/M586/AboutUs/Overview/default.htm.
The Alliance School Milwaukee. http://allianceschoolnet.bbnow.org/index.php.