My intent with this post is to draw attention to something that seems to be becoming overlooked in this heightened political climate – the safety and welfare of our kids. This is not a republican or democrat issue. It is not a liberal or conservative issue. It isn’t even a pro or con statement about the so-called “religious right.” And it isn’t about my own personal political or religious beliefs. It IS, however, an issue about making sure our kids are in a safe environment in schools and able to get the education they are there for.
Last year, Tennessee introduced a “Don’t Say Gay” bill (SB49) in their state legislature which stirred a lot of controversy. The bill would prohibit mentioning sexual orientation in kindergarten through 8th grade. The exception was only in speaking about sexuality in terms of “natural human reproduction science.” The definition of “natural human reproduction science” wasn’t given and there were no guidelines allowing for any sex education. Earlier this month, the sponsor of this bill pulled the legislation before it could come up for a vote. It appears to be dead for now.
Recently, Missouri also introduced a bill (2051) dubbed a “Don’t Say Gay” bill to even more controversy. The Missouri bill went a few steps beyond the proposed bill in Tennessee in that it included kindergarten through 12th grade and also banned extracurricular activity—meaning disallowing any gay-straight alliances in schools. The exact wording is short and to the point: Notwithstanding any other law to the contrary, no instruction, material, or extracurricular activity sponsored by a public school that discusses sexual orientation other than in a scientific instruction concerning human reproduction shall be provide in any public school. I had expected a long, bureaucratic document, but the preceding statement was the extent of the bill.
Again, this isn’t about politics, religion, or family values. This is about the safety and welfare of our kids. According to the 2009National School Climate Survey (from www.glsen.org — @GLSEN), the following information was collected:
- 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 that past year because of their sexual orientation.
- 72.4% heard homophobic remarks, such as “faggot” or “dyke,” frequently or often at school.
- 61.1% reported that they felt unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation, and more than a third (39.9%) felt unsafe because of their gender expression.
- 30% of LGBT students missed at least one day of school in that previous month because of safety concerns, compared to 6.7% of a national sample of all secondary school students.
There were many other findings in this study, but it is hard to look at even these alone and wonder how the climate could improve if it becomes illegal to speak of sexual orientation or have gay-straight alliances available in public schools.
- Having a gay-straight alliance in school was related to more positive experiences for LGBT students, including: hearing fewer homophobic remarks, less victimization because of sexual orientation and gender expression, less absenteeism because of safety concerns, and a greater sense of belonging to the school community.
- The presence of supportive staff contributed to a range of positive indicators including fewer reports of missing school, fewer reports of feeling unsafe, greater academic achievement, higher educational aspirations, and a greater sense of school belonging.
- Having an anti-bullying policy that included protections based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity/expression reduced homophobic remarks and victimization related to sexual orientation, and saw increased staff intervention when these incidents did happen.
As a society, we seem to be trying to become more proactive and stand against bullying, regardless of the reason. It is important to remember that bullying has become the new “buzz word,” but it also includes teasing and harassment at a much higher level than my friends and I saw when we were in school. Today, with the help of the Internet, texting photos and videos, and social media (and this isn’t meant to denounce new technology in any way), the teasing that was present when I was in school isn’t forgotten over the summer; it isn’t vacated by coming back in the fall a taller, stronger student in those high school years; and it isn’t helped by simply going to a different school. The bullying, teasing, and harassment that happens today lives forever when it happens online, and it has an exponentially wider audience—making the solution of changing schools less effective.
It is hard to miss the suicides of LGBT youth in the news. In this last academic year alone, there has been at least one LGBT youth suicide reported every month—nine were reported in September 2011 alone.
The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and The Trevor Project, among other organizations, have tools and resources provided specifically for educators and students. If these “Don’t Say Gay” laws pass, those resources are for naught. Students will have fewer options for safe places and support at school.
St Charles Community College has convened a diversity task force in order to conduct analysis and provide recommendations based on feedback received from the Higher Learning Commission. The college has also scheduled a guest speaker to address and discuss diversity during our fall faculty in-service session. It seems as we (as a community and society) are continually trying to improve awareness and understanding of diversity, which includes sexual orientation (and simply put – anything unique), legislation may be pushing back. Allowing gay-straight alliances in K-12 schools and allowing educators to speak in terms of sexual orientation allows our kids a safer place to learn and grow.
Preventing sexual orientation from becoming a four-letter word and banning it in schools doesn’t mean that students will be threatened or confused. In fact, I hate to keep hammering on this; preventing this ban will allow them to feel safer, better understood, and better supported. These are basic needs and they should be met. I hope that K-12 educators and schools are allowed to do more of this rather than less.