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Peter M. De Witt
All students should be allowed to follow their own paths and feel they can be their own people without the threat of harassment and physical abuse. Everyone should be allowed to find friends with similar interests; dress the way they want; and participate in sports, the arts, or any after-school activity that will help nourish their soul. Unfortunately, in many school systems across the United States, that is often not allowed to happen.
Many students go to school to pursue their interests, and they feel safe doing so. Day by day, they walk in the door with other friends discussing their plans for the afternoon, night, or weekend that lies ahead, as they head to classes where they will be engaged in the education process.
Other students are not as fortunate. They walk through the door feeling very unsafe. Those students often come from the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) community and are considered sexually diverse students. According to the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), "84.6 percent of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 40.1 percent reported being physically harassed, and 18.8 percent reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation. 72.4 percent heard homophobic remarks" (GLSEN, 2009, p. 26).
Those students are being bullied. They are teased and tormented on a daily basis by their peers. Bullying is much more threatening and frightening than the normal stress kids feel. Bullying is targeted behavior toward one child on the part of one or more other children.
Sexually diverse students walk into school not knowing where they can escape and, as much as teachers, administrators, and parents try to stop it, bullying still happens. Unfortunately, some adults also allow it to happen because sexually diverse students are not always accepted into the school population as easily as their heterosexual peers.
Along with 21st century skills meant to prepare our students for the future come 21st century tools that are used to torment kids at home as well as at school. Social networking sites, e-mail, and negative blogs can make any victim feel as if there is no escape from a bully, and many sexually diverse students go through their high school careers feeling unprotected from this sort of abuse.
School administrators can be proactive in their support of GLBT students by creating safeguards to protect them from bullying. Schools can support students by establishing Gay-Straight Alliances, incorporating curriculum that covers GLBT issues, providing professional development for teachers so they can better serve the needs of sexually diverse students, and offering diverse literature that focuses on GLBT issues.
Recently, New York State introduced the Dignity for All Schools Act. The goal of this bill, which was passed by the Senate on June 21, 2010, is to amend New York education law to prohibit harassment against students in school. This important bill authorizes the commissioner of education to create policies to safeguard sexually diverse students in all schools in New York. School districts across the state are creating safeguards through board policies and school codes of conduct that protect students who are being harassed based on their sexual orientation.
Szalacha asserts that "educators are coming to believe that they have a social responsibility to provide an environment that both supports the ability of all students—including lesbians and gays—to learn and is free from physical and psychological abuse" (2001, p. 8). The Dignity for All Schools Act reflects this sense of responsibility.
Though bullying of students is common, bullying of GLBT students is especially prevalent. Through the use of safeguards, school districts can help protect these students and perhaps help more students come out into a nurturing atmosphere where all students can feel safe.
GLSEN. (2009). 2009 National school climate survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in our nation's schools. New York: Author.
Szalacha, L. (2001). The sexual diversity climate of Massachusetts' secondary schools and the success of the safe schools program for gay and lesbian students. Boston: Harvard University.
Peter M. De Witt is an elementary school teacher in upstate New York. He is also an author and an education consultant for an NBC affiliate in Albany, NY.
ASCD Express, Vol. 6, No. 13. Copyright 2011 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
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