Creating Safe Schools for LGBT Students
Post submitted by whole child blogger Christine Fisher, a senior majoring in journalism at Temple University.
When parents at one North Carolina school refused to return a library book that featured a gay main character, the issue drew mixed reactions and international attention. Some parents wrote to the school to ask that their child not be given access to the book. Conversely, others wrote to ask that their son or daughter read the text. Before the controversy settled down, 32 copies of the book were donated to the school's library, from as far away as Australia.
A teacher from that North Carolina school shared this story during Peter DeWitt's "Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students" session at the recent ASCD Annual Conference in Philadelphia, Pa.
DeWitt is a principal and national consultant in New York—a state seen as progressive for passing the Dignity for All Students Act, which requires that public schools safeguard all students from harassment and bullying. But Dewitt and fellow teachers know that when it comes to protecting LGBT students, there is room for improvement both in New York and in other states.
DeWitt, who has experienced everything from parents criticizing his own sexual orientation to young children assuming that a picture-book character wearing pink was female, provided session attendees with awareness tools to bring back to their own schools.
"It's really about creating an inclusive environment," DeWitt said. "It's about treating these kids equally, whether they're gay or straight."
It's also about asking, How are we going to make students feel safe at school? To create that safe environment, DeWitt said that educators could provide outreach to parents, who might not understand the issues, and could incorporate LGBT terms into their curriculum. For instance, social studies teachers might consider hosting debates on gay marriage, the military's policies toward LGBT members, domestic partnerships, and equal rights.
"It's just as healthy for straight kids to hear this as it is for gay kids, because it makes it more normal," DeWitt said.
He stressed the importance of school policies protecting and accepting, not just tolerating, sexual diversity. He recommended that school policies set the tone for LGBT acceptance, support teachers who want to include LGBT topics in their curriculum, and offer professional development for all faculty members. Schools can also start a gay-straight alliance (GSA) or participate in awareness events such as No Name-Calling Week.
Negative community pushback, combined with deficiencies in professional development, curriculum, and leadership, can challenge LGBT awareness efforts, DeWitt admitted. He has noticed that some people believe that there are educators "who want this to be the only issue we talk about," he said. "That's not true. I just want it to be an issue we talk about."
Emily Young, a conference attendee and music teacher, said she plans to take DeWitt's recommendations back to her school in Hellertown, Pa.
"This is an issue we don't really talk about in our school," Young said. She hopes to change that.