Sunday, March 11, 2012

What About the Adults?

Yesterday, here in Northern Virginia, a panel of current and former students from area schools convened to discuss their experiences with bullying and overt homophobia within their schools:



As you can see, these students still face harassment, bullying, and inappropriate comments in their schools.  Moreover, a lot of their concerns are about the adults in their buildings.  According to these students, some of the adults contribute directly to the problem, some are unsure of how to best help and address the harassment, and others are in denial altogether that there are any LGBT students in schools and thus any problems that needs to be addressed.

There are LGBT students in schools, and they need support on multiple fronts.  "Jeremy" is a student who struggles with feelings of isolation:
"I went through so many internal fights, that even to this day I struggle with coping. I found myself hating who I am. Knowing that if I even gave one ounce of indication I might be gay, my entire school, family, and team would disown me, hurts tons." (source: www.lgbtqnation.com)
There is a real fear here that no one in his school, including the adults, would be able to understand and accept him for his true self.  Similarly, "Daniel" also felt that he was unable to express his true identity and was harassed during his years in school:
"I was taunted a lot throughout my early academic years in school. My voice was softer than other boys. I didn’t necessarily want to engage in the same activities that other boys did. Although, I did play football and basketball with my male friends and was quite good at it. However, five minutes later you could find me jumping double dutch and braiding hair with my female friends, and in complete heaven. I knew I was different, but the teasing and harassing that 'friends' put me through, made me feel like I couldn’t be myself." (source: www.lgbtqnation.com
School is challenging enough for most LGBT students, but when the perception of the kids of teachers, counselors, administrators, and other school staff is that they are unsure of how to best assist these students, are unwilling to assist these students, or even contribute to the bullying and harassment of these students themselves, it makes the environment even more difficult to endure. 

There seems to be change in the air, though, with regards to allowing school staff to contribute to the negative comments and atmosphere on LGBT issues.  A New Jersey teacher is currently in the process of being fired due to alleged anti-gay comments and discrimination.  A teacher in Missouri is being publicly and professionally scrutinized for homophobic and insensitive comments about gay students and suicide.  An Arkansas school board member resigned after outrage over the comments that he had posted about LGBT students and suicide.  Perhaps most public is the recent settlement between LGBT students, the Federal Government, and the Anoka-Hennapin School District in Minnesota.  The school district had taken a stance that adults were not allowed to discuss sexual orientation or gender identity in schools.  According to students and faculty, this created a hostile environment and allowed the bullying and harassment of LGBT students to go largely unchecked.  The settlement now allows for sexual-orientation and gender identity to be a protected group in bullying and harassment policies, and identifies and bolsters school supports for these students.

More and more, school systems are beginning to adopt policies that protect students but that also allow school personnel to support these students based on these policies and regulations.  I've previously written a post about teacher bullies and ways for students and staff alike to address them.  What other ways can school counselors help to assist teachers and all school staff in supporting LGBT students?
  • Develop staff trainings.  Working through the appropriate channels, help to develop and deliver trainings for district and school personnel on the challenges faced by LGBT students, the regulations within your district that support LGBT students and staff, as well as concrete strategies for how to directly combat and confront anti-gay harassment and bullying in the schools.  If an in-person training is not possible, consider making a video or audio training and sharing it with your teachers.
  • Come up with a list of "tips" for teachers.  I truly believe that more adults in schools would address the homophobic slurs and epithets running rampant through the halls if they knew that they would be supported and if they knew how best to do it.  This has been highly studied in the United Kingdom, and there are some great suggestions published on this website with regards to classroom policies.  Further, as a former classroom teacher, I would simply make it clear at the beginning of the year what the expectations were with regards to acceptable behavior and language and then appropriately challenge slurs the way I would challenge any inappropriate language.  Never underestimate how far a simple, "I am offended by that word and we do not use it in my classroom or the school--you need to choose a different word" can go with students--they get the message fairly quickly and they will stop entirely over a fairly short period of time.
  • Model, model, model.  When you are in the halls and you hear inappropriate LGBT slurs, kindly confront the student and have a conversation with them.  If you notice another student being harassed, make sure to chat with that student to let them know you are supporting them.  If you are leading a classroom lesson and someone yells out something that is offensive, address it in a quick and no-nonsense way and then move on with your teaching.  Kids and adults alike will watch and pick up on the way that you handle these situations and it can serve as a model for how they themselves could address it in the future.  Further, if you witness another adult in the building contributing to bullying and harassment, consider having a one-on-one conversation with that adult to let them know of your concerns and why it is inappropriate.  If it continues, you may need to look at taking your concern further--if your district has clear policies against anti-LGBT language, you should be supported.
  • Let students and staff know you are supportive.  Consider being a co-sponsor of your school's GSA, or perhaps volunteer to come go into a meeting to let the kids and sponsors know that you are a safe person that they can approach to discuss LGBT issues as well as harassment/bullying concerns.  You can also order a Safe-Space Kit from the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) which includes stickers that you can post in your office door that identifies you as a supportive place for students in need to go.
  • Advocate.  If your district does not have sexual-orientation or gender-identity in their anti-bullying and harassment policies, is there a way that you can begin to advocate for that change?  If there is no GSA at your school and the students are wanting to start one, can you pull together some data (www.glsen.org) to share with your administration that would support the efficacy of such a group?  For some schools and in some school districts, you could be one of the only adult voices LGBT students have in their corner--how will you use it?
Having adults in the school that LGBT students can depend on for support can make a large impact on their lives, perhaps even saving them.  Never underestimate how much your simple actions or advocacy can impact children's lives.

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