School doors open, with deadly consequences

Schoolhouses fling their doors open wide in September. Then,  the grim statistics roll in.

By Sue Hyde, Director, Creating Change Conference

Depending on the sources, from five to nine teenagers, all male, killed themselves last month after enduring anti-LGBT bullying and  harassment. Most commonly, media reports five suicides; the blog site New Civil Rights Movement reports its readers identified nine due to bullying. But, who’s counting?

We’re counting. The LGBT people of the United States are counting as these young people end their lives, opting to die than endure one more day of living hell at their schools.

Despite heavy rain, hundreds turned out for the Oct. 3 vigil in NYC against bullying and hate. Photo by Inga Sarda-Sorensen.

Meanwhile, some school officials dither over anti-bullying policies. Most notably, in the Anoka-Hennepin school district in Minnesota where LGBT advocates say seven students committed suicide in the past year and four of those were based on perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, the school board adopted a policy of “neutrality” in regards discussions of homosexuality. The 2010 neutral policy improves on their 2009 policy that prohibited teachers from discussing homosexuality as a “normal, valid lifestyle.”

Really? Neutral? How is a school counselor able to effectively support a student who is coming out as a lesbian when the counselor must remain neutral? How can a lunchroom worker intervene in a bullying incident if neutrality is required? One former high school student said, “I wanted to talk to someone, but I was too scared to seek someone out. When I was closeted going through high school and middle school, I never heard anything positive about an gay person or a positive portrayal of gay issues. Only that gay people were Holocaust victims.” Will students now learn anything different under the districts neutrality policy?

The research can’t be more clear. Our friends at the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) report that students from schools with explicit policies on sexual orientation and gender identity experience lower rates of harassment and higher rates of feeling safe at school.

Signs left in front of the White House during the Safe School Action Network's National Safe Schools Day of Action on Oct. 5.

Schools like the Anoka-Hennepin school district must send a message to their school community that no one will be treated differently because of sexual orientation or gender identity. All school staff need training on effective bullying prevention. Bullying and harassment because of sexual orientation and gender identity must be discussed with young people.

Avoiding the topic, as is happening in the Anoka-Hennepin school district, may spare school officials the stress of dealing with the likes of the Minnesota Family Council that claims anti-bullying programs will indoctrinate children in homosexuality, but that avoidance, a.k.a. neutrality, leaves vulnerable kids alone, hurting, and perhaps hurting themselves.

The Anoka-Hennepin school district is merely one example of school officials thrusting their heads in the sand. GLSEN reports that of the 12,000 public school districts in the country, there are 4,000 Gay Straight Alliance groups registered with them. Most of these are in high schools. Students in the other 8,000 school districts can rely on groups like GLSEN, the Trevor Project, PFLAG and Campus Pride, if they know they’re out there.

Good work comes out of these valiant organizations, but the reality is this: Nonprofit groups don’t have the resources of, say, the U.S. Department of Education. Kudos to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for his forceful statement on the recent suicides; but he needs more power to act.

Federal legislation to improve the lives of students and to empower the U.S. Department of Education awaits congressional action. The Safe Schools Improvement Act (HR 2262/S 3739) would require schools and districts receiving federal funds to adopt codes of conduct specifically prohibiting bullying and harassment, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The bill would also require that states report data on bullying and harassment to the Department of Education.

The Student Non-Discrimination Act (HR 4530) would prohibit discrimination against any public school student on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. In addition, the Student Non-Discrimination Act (H.R. 4530/S. 3390) prevents discrimination against any public school student because of the actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity of a person the student associates with or has associated with.

Together, these two bills would put the squeeze on the Anoka-Hennepin school district and any other nonresponsive school districts to do more and to do better. Without the bills? Neutrality… and we see what that has wrought.

Let’s mourn these kids. Then, let’s organize, too. No more should the schoolhouse doors open while closet doors or casket lids slam tight on our kids. Call your congressperson. Call your senator. Get this legislation passed and save lives.