By Addie Malone
On Sept. 22, Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University freshman, drove 45 miles to the George Washington Bridge and at 8:45 p.m. jumped to his death in the Hudson River. Clementi was just one of seven young people to take their own lives in the month of September due to harassment over their sexual orientation.
The recent loss of seven teenage lives has prompted a nationwide debate over the effectiveness of America’s schools in addressing the safety of gay students and has caused many institutions to instate more policies advocating inclusion.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students face a unique set of safety concerns each day. In the National Education Policy Center’s recent report “Safe at School: Addressing the School Environment and LGBT Safety through Policy and Legislation,” 85 percent of LGBT students report being harassed because of their sexual identity, and over 20 percent report being physically attacked. This type of persistently hostile and unsafe school environment has proven to result in lower educational achievement and higher rates of depression and suicide for LGBT students.
“The mistreatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students is worse today than many might realize, with unacceptable complicity by school personnel that continues to exacerbate the problem,” said Stuart Beigal in an interview with The Washington Post. Beigal is the co-author of the “Safe at School” report, along with the Public Policy Institute’s founding director Sheila James Kuehl.
“Court records and academic research reveal a highly troubling pattern of mistreatment, negative consequences, and a dramatic failure on the part of many educational institutions to adequately address LGBT-related issues and concerns,” Beigal said.
So just what are schools doing nationwide to stop the harassment of students in the LGBT community?
In Chicago, a new school aimed at ending the bullying and harassment LGBT students face on a daily basis is being developed. William Greaves, the city’s liaison to the gay and lesbian community is on the school’s design team, and he reports that the main cause for reform within the school system is due to Chicago’s high drop-out rate among LGBT students.
For many schools, however, a lack of resources and institutional support has hindered the efforts of school administrators, teachers, guidance counselors, and family specialists who seek to make school a more welcoming environment for LGBT students.
The National Education Policy Center’s “Safe School” report contains a series of policy recommendations to ensure schools are welcoming and safe for LGBT students. These recommendations cover areas such as school climate, curriculum, and the particular role of school sports in defining a school’s culture.
East has recently been recognized as a school of excellence; however, for some members of LGBT community the school climate is not one of inclusion. Policy Code 1710 of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools’ policies and procedures entitled “Policy against Discrimination, Harassment, and Bullying” states that “all employees and students should be free of unlawful discrimination, harassment, and bullying as part of a safe, orderly, and inviting working and learning environment.”
Programs aiming to address discrimination based on sexual orientation, such as “hate free zone” posters, are apparent at East. Principal Eileen Tully feels proud of East’s tolerance level.
“In general this is a pretty safe place for students to be themselves, whether they are white, black, Asian, Hispanic, gay, straight, Christian, Muslim, or Jewish. East is a place for students to figure out who they are as they become adults,” Tully said.
Efforts by administration and student-lead organizations are admirable; however, many feel these initiatives are in no way sufficient in addressing the issues surrounding the treatment of LGBT students at East and that improvements need to be made.
“I am in the business of developing human beings to the greatest of their potential, “Tully said.
“In the future I hope to see a heightened level of consciousness in our students. Nationwide, as well as at East, I feel there is a common misunderstanding about not only LGBT students, but also about the Islam religion and those that practice it. East is place where everybody’s differences are and should be celebrated,” principal Tully added.
Co-author of the National Education Policy Center’s “Safe at School” report Beigal provided school administrators across the country with one last message.
“Educators are not required to change their personal values or religious beliefs; however, all students must be treated with equal dignity and equal respect by school officials, both under the law and as a matter of morality and common decency.”