Children hear these taunts an average of 26 times a day on our school campuses, according to national surveys by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network and state-level reports by the Massachusetts Governor's Council on Gay and Lesbian Students and the State of Washington Coalition of Safe Schools.
In one recent study, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students reported "profound experiences with verbal, physical and sexual harassment and assault in school." The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, an advocacy group, indicated 61 percent had experienced verbal harassment, 47 percent reported sexual harassment, 28 percent cited physical harassment and 14 percent said they had been physically assaulted at school.
The litigation relating to the treatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual students during the past few years should serve as a wakeup call to school administrators and school board members. In May 1996, the Wisconsin Supreme Court awarded gay student Jamie Nabozny $960,000 for harassment he suffered beginning in junior high school and continuing until he dropped out of high school. The judgment was rendered against the individual administrators, not against the school district.
The U.S. Department of Education in 1997 clarified that Title IX covers harassment relating to sexual orientation. A year later the Office for Civil Rights ruled that an Arkansas school district had not protected a gay student from harassment, violating his rights under Title IX.
A Protected Group
The first step that every district needs to take is to review its nondiscrimination and sexual harassment policies to ensure that sexual orientation is a protected class, just as are age, religion, race, ethnicity, etc. Some districts today defend their existing policies by saying they refer to all students. However, many of these policies then delineate specific categories but omit sexual orientation.
School districts also need a policy that addresses multicultural education or diversity in the school community. This, too, must include sexual orientation along with the other protected areas. We need to get away from religious discussions about this topic and address it head-on as an issue of harassment and discrimination on our campuses.
Once a district has included sexual orientation as an area of non-discrimination, information on this topic must become part of an ongoing program of multicultural/diversity education of staff and students. The discussion of sexual orientation is a sensitive one and needs to be handled carefully.
While conducting a professional development activity on this subject, I recently had a staff member tell me that homosexuality is against her religious beliefs. My response to that individual was that she is entitled to her personal and religious beliefs, that I was not trying to persuade her otherwise, but as a school district employee she has an absolute obligation to ensure students are safe and free from harassment on school grounds, including being called a "faggot" or "dyke."
Gay and lesbian students have many obstacles to overcome. They hear these epithets from other students, sometimes even from teachers. If they are harassed, they are unlikely to go home to tell their parents because they often fear their parents will reject them too. At school, students may not know whom to approach or where to turn.
A Supportive Stance
School leaders can do several things to ensure their schools are safer for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth.
Remember that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual students are in your classes. There also are straight students with gay or lesbian parents, and negative comments about gays and lesbians can hurt them, too.
Examine your own beliefs and make a commitment to unlearn any prejudice that you may have internalized.
Talk with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual youth. Ask them what they want and need. Listen to them.
Use the words gay and lesbian in positive ways. Emphasize contributions by well-known gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual people.
Challenge homophobic remarks everywhere and all the time.
Order appropriate lesbian and gay books for the school library.
Sensitize other staff. Obtain a copy of a new 12-page booklet, "Just the Facts About Sexual Orientation and Youth: A Primer for Principals, Educators and School Personnel," endorsed by AASA (available at the GLSEN website). Consider presenting a training video about teaching and talking about sexual orientation, such as "It’s Elementary." Or arrange for a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender youth speaker from GLBT or someone from Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, a national organization with local chapters.
Support the creation of a gay/straight alliance in your school district under the Equal Access Act.
Chance to Educate
Don’t overlook the teachable moment. When you see or hear harassment, take it on and discuss what the names mean. Ask students or staff members: "What does faggot mean?" "Why are you using that name to demean others?"
Several outstanding curricula have been developed by state education agencies (notably Massachusetts, Washington and Connecticut) that are appropriate for various grade levels. Another good resource is the Web site of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (www.glsen.org).
Schools can be safe and respectful places for all, but it takes a concentrated effort to stop the harassment, prejudice and fear that have been learned over many years.
Alan Storm is director of student services, Sunnyside Unified School District, 2238 E. Ginter Road, Tucson, AZ 85706. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org