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Creating a Safe Place

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Shannon Bryant, a junior at a Cape Cod high school, remembers when a male classmate stalked her for a week, shouting "Dyke!'' as she passed him in the halls. Recently, she says, a female student suddenly punched her for no apparent reason when she entered the girls' locker room after field-hockey practice.

"I'm nonviolent and it was bad,'' says Shannon, recoiling as she describes the assault. "My grades went down, and I couldn't concentrate.''

Kerry Ashforth, a freshman at Plymouth High School, says anti-gay comments are commonplace at her school, too. "People see a kid who isn't muscular,'' she says, "and they call him a fag.''

Kit George, a sophomore at Plymouth, says one of her gay friends dropped out of school because he was harassed. "Kids are mean,'' she concludes with disgust.

But Kit, Kerry, and Shannon are ready to change all that. And they're not alone. Some 50 other students and teachers from nine high schools across their region of Massachusetts joined them at Plymouth High on a recent Saturday to talk about prejudice against gay and lesbian students--and what they can do about it.

This one-day workshop, sponsored by the Massachusetts Department of Education's Safe Schools Program for Gay and Lesbian Students, is part of the first comprehensive state program in the country charged with creating safe environments for homosexual students in public schools. The $450,000 program is funded under the state's comprehensive school-health-education program.

So far this year, more than 100 of the state's 350 school districts have sent representatives to eight workshops around the state. Seven more workshops are planned through June. Run mainly by local teachers from schools with established gay- and lesbian-support groups, the workshops offer technical assistance on setting up"gay/straight alliances'' on campus and provide information about support networks in the community. But participants also come to hear stories and swap strategies on creating safe environments.

Bolstered by a historic gay- and lesbian-student-rights law that Gov. William F. Weld signed in December, Massachusetts students now have unprecedented legal recourse against discrimination. Although school systems in other states have established gay- and lesbian-rights policies, no other state has adopted a law that enables students to initiate lawsuits against districts that discriminate or subject them to harassment.

"This is not to say we want a spate of lawsuits,'' says David LaFontaine, the chairman of the Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth, who lobbied along with hundreds of students for the law's passage. "But gay students have as much right to participate in every school activity as their peers. And now that we have a law on the books, we can use it to break down barriers.''

One of the most common obstacles gay and lesbian individuals and their supporters face is a general denial about the difficulties homosexual youths confront every day. LaFontaine and others simply point to the statistics. Young homosexuals are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers, according to a 1989 U.S. Health and Human Services Department report. Other surveys reveal more alarming figures: 45 percent of gay male teenagers and 20 percent of lesbian teenagers say they have experienced a verbal or physical assault in high school; and 28 percent of gay male youths drop out of school because of discomfort they experience there.

Brainstorming Sessions

But the determined participants at Plymouth High School are ready to brainstorm about how to diminish these disturbing statistics. Separated into teams for the day's first exercise, they congregate around four easels lined with white paper positioned in a semicircle around the cafeteria. Each easel has one of the state board's four recommendations written at the top of the page: "Schools are encouraged to develop policies protecting gay and lesbian students from harassment, violence, and discrimination,'' the first board reads.

Team members first take a few minutes to list any questions they have about this guiding principle. One student picks up a black marker from the easel and writes, "How to deal with teachers who have a problem with the law.'' Another participant scribbles, "How to get support of a very conservative community.'' As the timer buzzes, the teams shift to the next easel.

The other three easels carry the board's additional recommendations: to train teachers on violence and suicide prevention, to establish gay/straight support groups, and to provide counseling for family members of homosexual students. (The board did not approve a fifth recommendation to include gay and lesbian history and culture in the school curriculum.)

"These workshops are like large focus groups,'' says Jeff Perrotti, the program director for the state education department's safe-schools program. "They are essential to program planning, because each school community knows best how to develop programs that meet its specific needs.''

The workshop day is packed full of activities. After the strategy sessions, the students and teachers gather in a large auditorium to watch a poignant video chronicling the lives of several gay and lesbian teenagers. After a brief discussion, the group returns to the cafeteria for further planning sessions, while munching on sandwiches, salads, and fruit cups.

The rest of the afternoon gets parceled out in half-hour segments. A panel of school board members, teachers, and community supporters discusses what makes some programs succeed and others fail. As the day winds down, small groups of students and teachers gather at the lunch tables to outline "action plans'' for setting up support groups.

Safe Environments

Throughout the day, participants continue to come back to their central concern: how to make school a safe, welcoming place for homosexual students. Ellen Abdow, today's workshop coordinator and a special-education teacher at Brookline High School, says one important way to create a safe atmosphere in schools is to use simple environmental signals.

Perrotti agrees. Gay and lesbian students are constantly "scanning for safety,'' looking for cues that show it's a safe place to be who they are. "We want to help schools create 'askable environments,''' he says, where students can feel comfortable approaching teachers about gay and lesbian issues.

Just having a poster of a community gay and lesbian youth group in a guidance counselor's office, Perrotti says, can help create a safe place for students.

Teachers can also look for ways to use inclusive language to signal a receptive environment. A workshop volunteer suggests, for example, that a math teacher could present a problem in which "Harry and David are at home with their son.''

A school counselor in the workshop says school officials also need training in confidentiality so students feel comfortable confiding in them. Adbow adds that all school personnel need to learn about coping with homophobia. They may know how to react to racist remarks, she says, but that doesn't mean they know how to be sensitive to homophobic comments.

"We need to make school staff aware of the baggage students come to school with that makes it a difficult place to go,'' says Matthew Riley, a health specialist for the New Bedford public schools who attended the workshop to learn about the new law and the state services now available.

In between workshop activities, participants mill around a table at one end of the room cluttered with materials: black stickers with inverted pink triangles that read "safe zones,'' books and resource lists on gay and lesbian issues, a lavender poster of Walt Whitman that showcases one of his lesser-read love poems from Leaves of Grass. A popular black-and-white flier on the table reads, "Straight but not narrow.''

Alyssa Davis, a student at nearby Barnstable High School, says her parents are the first ones she plans to educate on this subject. Her knapsack is loaded with information that she plans to share with her mom and dad. "Even about coming here, my parents said, 'What if people at school call you a lesbian?' and I said to them, 'That's O.K.'''

State Support

To help public schools carry out the board of education's recommendations, the state is providing grants ranging from $500 to $2,000 this year. To date, schools have used their funding to hire speakers, design support-group brochures, buy food for meetings, and take field trips. But schools can use the money pretty much as they see fit, as long as their efforts support the board's recommendations.

So far, Perrotti hasn't encountered any real opposition to the workshops. In fact, the program's offices have been flooded with calls from people wanting information about the program and community members eager to volunteer their time. Perrotti believes the public response to the program has been so favorable in part because the workshops present the issue in the context of school safety.

"This program challenges many taboo topics--death, homosexuality--and by talking about them in terms of safety,'' Perrotti suggests, "they are easier to discuss.''

Not Just for Gays

Program organizers also stress that these workshops are not just for gay and lesbian students. In fact, by using the term "gay/straight alliance,'' they hope to emphasize that all students need to work against prejudice to bring about systemic change in schools.

"This issue is not about a 'different' way of life; it's about life itself,'' Governor Weld said in a speech to teachers and principals last June. Like the Pilgrims who landed nearby more than 350 years ago, some of the teenagers who traveled to this workshop feel as though they, too, are embarking on a potentially hazardous journey.

By the end of the day, though, they seem well-equipped. Their workshop kits contain a sampling of different school policies on harassment, teacher-training materials, and relevant articles. They're loaded with stickers and posters and advice from more experienced travelers.

As the cafeteria empties, four teenagers from Duxbury, Mass., are still huddling around a table filling out their grant application. They're going to apply for the state money on their own because they can't find an adult sponsor at their school.

"Our biggest goal is to start a gay/straight alliance,'' says Adam Fletcher, a 10th grader at Duxbury High School. He says his teachers make jokes about homosexuals, and some students run through the halls shouting, "Gays die now.''

"I'm not 'out' except to these guys,'' says Lucy Grinnell, a lanky 10th grader, motioning toward her classmates at the table. "But a lot of people at my school get mad at me because I speak to my class about homophobia.''

"People in Duxbury think nobody in our town is gay,'' Adam adds. "We need to educate them.''

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