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Bullying of gay students faces new scrutiny

The recent spate of youth suicides linked to anti-gay bullying has educators around the country re-analyzing school policies and strategies for making schools safe for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered students.

In Colorado, a coalition of funders and advocacy groups supportive of LGBT issues has begun exploring ways to elevate the profile of school safety issues, said Jason Marsden, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation in Denver.

“It feels to us like there’s a groundswell of movement in this area,” he said.

Later this month, Assistant Deputy Secretary of Education Kevin Jennings, who heads the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools for the U.S. Department of Education, will be addressing educators at the Colorado Safe Schools Regional Training in Pueblo.

The conference is jointly hosted by the Colorado School Safety Resource Center and the Center for the Study of Prevention of Violence at CU-Boulder.

Jennings, the founder of the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN), has become a lightning rod for conservative criticism for his outspoken support for making schools safe and friendly for LGBT students.

He’ll be delivering the morning keynote at the conference on Oct. 21, with the topic “Safe and Supportive Schools: Creating an Environment Where Everyone Can Learn.”

Summit in works for DPS

Denver Public Schools board member Andrea Merida said she and fellow board member Mary Seawell hope to put together a summit within the next 60 days to listen to the concerns of LGBT students, with an eye toward strengthening anti-bullying policies and encouraging gay/straight alliances – student clubs supportive of all students – within DPS.

Denver school board member Andrea Merida

“We really want to make sure we’re setting up a situation where all students feel safe and feel valued, but still respecting cultural and family choices,” she said.

“I want to hear from kids that either identify as other than heterosexual and from other kids who are suffering bullying. I want to understand what’s going on from the kids’ perspective.”

Merida said she will also meet with representatives from One Colorado, a gay rights non-profit, and Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights (COLOR) to discuss involving those and other groups in the discussions.

“We want to make sure, for example, that when we talk to kids about reproductive choices or safe sex, we’re not inadvertently painting anything other than heterosexual practices as outside the norm,” she said. “That’s one place to start. We want to make sure we respect the choices that all kids make.

Mary Seawell
Denver school board member Mary Seawell

“Ultimately, we’re seeing the data about suicides, about dropout rates for kids who express themselves in a non-heterosexual way, or who are perceived as non-heterosexual, and if we want to be serious about graduating all our kids, we have to address this,” Merida said.

Last week, the Denver-based National Education Policy Center, in collaboration with two other groups, released “Safe at School,” a brief describing the safety concerns of LGBT students, along with policy recommendations and model statute language.

“All 50 states have language mandating that schools maintain a safe school environment,” said Sheila Kuehl, former California state senator from Santa Monica and co-author of the report.

‘It’s not just fire drills, metal detectors’

“The thing that’s important for educators to understand is that a safe environment is not just fire drills and metal detectors,” Kuehl said. “Danger isn’t just gang violence and earthquakes. The day-to-day safety of students very often depends on what we call the school climate. Is it a climate in which some students feel bullied or harassed?

“Once you decide that yes, bullying and harassment are antithetical to a safe school environment, then you must take steps to do something,” added Kuehl, who is the author of the “Dignity for All Students Act,” which protects students against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in all California schools.

“There are a lot of people finally recognizing that school is hell for a lot of people, and a particular kind of hell for students who either are or are perceived to be LGBT, and the school has a responsibility to do something about that.”

Among the brief’s policy recommendations:

  • Educators must focus on school climate, and be proactive rather than reactive. They must commit to inclusive policies, end discriminatory discipline practices, stop inappropriately referring LGBT students to special education classes and promote more LGBT-specific programs in individual schools.
  • The curriculum – and the way it’s taught – needs to better reflect LGBT concerns. This might mean, for example, including reference to same-sex parents in elementary grades, LGBT-related content within a middle school current events class, and the inclusion of gay and transgender rights movements in high school history classes.
  • Organized sports should be scrutinized for homophobia and made more inviting for LGBT student athletes.

‘Claptrap’ from some conservatives

Kuehl knows those kinds of recommendations will draw the wrath of some conservative groups. This summer, the Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family launched an attack on anti-bullying rhetoric as a means to promote a “gay agenda.”

But Kuehl doesn’t buy that argument and is blunt about it.

“Focus on the Family is full of claptrap,” she said. “The courts certainly have thrown out every challenge to anti-bullying laws. They think they’re making a point that there’s some connection between barring bullying and infringement on free speech. But they are ignorant of the law.”

Another report, to be published in November in Developmental Psychology but already available online, finds that young adults who endured bullying during adolescence are far more likely to suffer depression later in life than their non-bullied peers, and that homophobic bullying is more widespread and more traumatic than any other kind of victimization.

“I wasn’t surprised to see this. We’ve always believed this,” said Caitlin Ryan, director of the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University and co-author of the study.

“But we live in a data-infused period. To be able to show this empirically is important. Now, when critics fight anti-bullying laws, we can show that anti-LGBT victimization is the highest and has the most negative outcomes, even when compared to other kinds of victimization.”

Shawna Kemppainen, executive director of Inside/Out Youth Services, an advocacy group in Colorado Springs, insists that this is not merely an issue for gays.

“For every one LGBT student assaulted because of their actual sexual orientation or gender identity, there are four straight students assaulted because someone thinks they look or act ‘gay,’ ” she said.

“When we create safer schools for all kids, including LGBT youth, overall more students graduate and become productive adults. This is good for the entire community.”

Rebecca Jones may be reached at

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