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Will the Dignity for All Students Act Work?

"It's people not programs." Todd Whitaker

On July 1st all public schools in New York State must have safeguards in place for students who are harassed based on race, weight, national origin, ethnic group, religion, gender, religious practices, mental or physical abilities, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Will making it a law to safeguard all of these groups change the status quo? Will educators take it all more seriously now that the legislation is in place in schools?

Parents send their kids to school to learn. They expect their children to be safe when they walk into their schools. Parents do not wake up in the morning and say, "I know my child is going to get abused today and that's alright," and yet that happens across America on a daily basis, and there are schools that do nothing about it.

The Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) says that, "84.6% of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 40.1% reported being physically harassed and 18.8% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation. 72.4% heard homophobic remarks frequently or often at school" (2009, p. 26).

There have been countless suicides. Story after story tells us about students who have been bullied, harassed and beaten. The ACLU recently ran a story about an openly gay student whose beating was videotaped and then shared through social networking with students in the high school (ACLU). He not only got beaten, we know that his peers most likely harassed him about the situation for days after the incident.

As educators we know that students can be hard on one another. Students have arguments or fights with other friends and the storm and stress of the drama enters are schools like a hurricane. In any school there are times when we have to weed through what is a simple argument and what is a really big issue. LGBT bullying in the United States is a really big issue but some school personnel would like to ignore it.

"We've got to dispel this myth that bullying is just a normal rite of passage - that it's some inevitable part of growing up. It's not. We have an obligation to ensure that our schools are safe for all of our kids. And to every young person out there, you need to know that if you're in trouble, there are caring adults who can help" (Obama. It Get's Better. p.9)

Why Focus on the Issue?
Why is DASA being forced upon schools? Mostly because there are school personnel who have ignored bullying based on sexual orientation, gender expression and other areas that are controversial. DASA is putting a spotlight on this population of students. As much as people may not want to differentiate between gay and straight students, we all have to identify the issue in order to prevent it from happening. We may seem to live in a more open society, many schools still do not offer safeguards that specifically address sexual orientation and that needs to change. It is the people as well as the programs that will create change for these students.

Schools are obligated to address these issues through the use of board policies and curriculum. It is sad that policies have to be put in place to do the right thing but schools and students are in crisis mode where this issue is concerned and hopefully DASA will help change that. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently held a meeting with some very brave LGBT youth to talk about bullying and how schools can better address their needs (USDOE).

Secretary Duncan's desire to further the conversation and protect LGBT youth is incredibly important because his leadership might inspire schools to create safeguards for their LGBT youth. More states and the schools districts within those states should follow suit and make this issue more of a priority. All students deserve a place at the table.

Out in the Open
Recently, the Washington Post had a story on how the Washington area received their very first mentoring program for LGBT students (Washington Post). Four gay advocates created a mentoring group to help students who were coming out. This much needed program will help students who may lack the support they need as they go through what can be described as a difficult time. The reality is that students are coming out at a younger age, and schools are not prepared for it.

Schools can, and should, have an impact on this issue by addressing the needs of all students through board policies, curriculum and after-school clubs. The reality is, educators do not always know how to handle the topic of sexual orientation because it is considered controversial. As much as saying, "We treat everyone the same" is a common theme, it is often not the reality.

As a school administrator I understand that the number one area that will help address any issue is a school board policy. School board policies give administrators and parents the support they need to make sure that issues are being addressed. School districts need to specifically address the issue of LGBT bullying in their policies and student codes of conduct.

Secondly, age-appropriate curriculum is a natural area to address the needs of LGBT students. Teachers introduce new topics to their students, some of which is always controversial. Curriculum that includes LGBT topics is lacking in many schools. The Los Angeles Unified School District became one of the first school districts in the country to mandate such curriculum (Daily Sundial).

Age-appropriate curriculum allows teachers to engage their students and inspire them to think about their future. It is also an area where they provoke students to think outside of themselves. Age-appropriate curriculum is a way to make sure that schools have a supportive and nurturing environment.

In the End
There are a variety of reasons why teachers do not include LGBT curriculum in their classrooms. Sometimes they do not know they should because they have never taught it before. Other times they are afraid of community pushback or an unsupportive administrator. Sometimes they do not discuss it because it is just easier to ignore the topic.

Many adults say they prevent bullying by teaching all of their students to respect one another. Unfortunately, many of them do that without specifically mentioning the word gay, which only ignores the topic and does not teach students to "accept" everyone.

By not focusing on the issue, teachers and administrators are ignoring the very population of students that walk into their classrooms and the very community that surrounds the school. If we ignore the issue it will not go away. The number one job of all educators, whether they are teachers or administrators is to keep students safe, and we know we have pockets of students in our school populations that aren't. Hopefully DASA will ensure that educators will make that happen.

Three Action Steps

  • Create school board policies that include specific language that addresses LGBT students.

  • Allow librarians to purchase books that have LGBT topics.

  • Advocate for a Gay Straight Alliance to be established in your school

Peter is the author of Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students (Corwin Press).


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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt's Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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