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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Have You Ever Felt Unsafe at School?

By Peter DeWitt — April 24, 2015 3 min read
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Have you ever visited somewhere where you didn’t feel safe? I’m not referring to a building that is abandoned, a basement that is dark and creepy or the “wrong side” of town. I mean a place where you felt threatened and were not sure whether you would be called a derogatory name...or even worse...hit or hurt by a person or...group of people.

What if it wasn’t a place you visited? What if it was a place you were expected to enter every day?

Can you imagine what it would be like to know that every time you entered into a public place you may get punched, kicked or at best...called a name? What if the situation is so bad that you don’t just worry about being abused but actually expect it? What if school was one of those places because of having a hostile school climate?

According to the National School Climate Center (NSCC. 2015),

The term, "school climate" refers to the quality and character of school life. It is based on patterns of school life experiences and reflects norms, goals, values, interpersonal relationships, teaching, learning and leadership practices, and organizational structures. School climate includes norms, values and expectations that support people feeling socially, emotionally and physically safe."

A group of students who are constantly as risk of being abused and feel unsafe as they enter into schools, are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) students. According to the 2013 Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) 2013 National School Climate Survey, the climate for LGBT students has thankfully gotten better, but it’s still risky for many students. GLSEN found:

Thirty-six percent of LGBT students were physically harassed (e.g., pushed or shoved) in the past year because of their sexual orientation and 23 percent because of their gender expression, while 17 percent were physically assaulted (e.g., punched, kicked, injured with a weapon) in the past year because of their sexual orientation and 11 percent because of their gender expression. Sixty-five percent of LGBT students heard homophobic remarks (e.g.,"dyke" or "faggot") frequently or often. Thirty-three percent heard negative remarks specifically about transgender people, like "tranny" or "he/she," frequently or often. Fifty-six percent of LGBT students reported personally experiencing LGBT-related discriminatory policies or practices at school and 65 percent said other students at their school had experienced these policies and practices. This included 28 percent reporting being disciplined for public displays of affection that were not disciplined among non-LGBT students. LGBT students with 11 or more supportive staff at their school were less likely to feel unsafe than students with no supportive staff (36 percent vs. 74 percent) and had higher GPAs (3.3. vs. 2.8). Unfortunately, only 39 percent of students could identify 11 or more supportive staff. Verbal and physical harassment based on sexual orientation and gender expression were lower than in all prior years of the NSCS, and physical assault has been decreasing since 2007.

A Positive School Climate

Too often we hear that students are “soft” and need to “toughen up.” Adults talk about the old days as if bullying helped them become better humans and more compassionate. Clearly, it did not for many if they feel that bullying based on discrimination is a rite of passage. Getting beaten or called names because you are gay isn’t going to build character.

We are losing children to suicide because they feel that is their only option to move forward.

In our education circles we often hear that students need more “grit” in order to become better learners. I believe they need to learn how to be compassionate for others, especially for those who are risk of being abused every single day they walk into school.

Why can’t we put structures in place that help us celebrate and respect diversity?

Schools get one chance to engage all students, and those students who are engaged should not feel as though they won the lottery. All students, regardless of being gay or straight should feel equally as entitled to a great education. They deserve a positive school climate, which takes great leadership.

NSCC say,

A positive school climate is one in which people are engaged and respected. Students, families and educators work together to develop, live and contribute to a shared school vision. Educators' model and nurture attitudes that emphasize the benefits and satisfaction gained from learning. Each person contributes to the operations of the school and the care of the physical environment. A sustainable, positive school climate fosters youth development and the learning necessary for a productive, contributing and satisfying life in a democratic society."

A Day of Silence

On April 17th, students from around the world participated in A Day of Silence. According to GLSEN,

Founded in 1996, the Day of Silence has become the largest single student-led action towards creating safer schools for all, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. From the first-ever Day of Silence at the University of Virginia in 1996, to the organizing efforts in over 8,000 middle schools, high schools, colleges and universities across the country in 2008, its textured history reflects its diversity in both numbers and reach."

Every year more and more students have participated in the Day of Silence. As we watch television, our eyes are opened to more LGBT characters in shows, and we tell ourselves that our world is much more open and accepting. I believe that is true but we still have a long way to go. We need only to look at this recent story to see from Pennsylvania to see that discrimination runs deep. Students held an Anti-Gay Day in protest to the Day of Silence.

In the End

All students should feel safe and engaged when they enter into school. School is supposed to be a place where students dive deep into learning, which means learning from teachers and one another. Organizations like GLSEN and the NSCC are trying to proactively and reactively help all students, not just the LGBT population.

The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence recently announced an event to raise awareness for LGBT students that will take place in October. The announcement says,

We are excited to announce the Emotion Revolution, a joint initiative between the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and Born This Way Foundation, founded by Lady Gaga and her mom, Cynthia. Our goal is to drive the national conversation that encourages schools to integrate social and emotional learning (SEL) in order to build more positive school climates.

The announcement goes on to say,

But before we begin, we need to listen. That's why, we've just launched an anonymous online survey that asks high school students from around the country to take 7 minutes to tell us how they currently feel in school, how they want to feel, and what they believe needs to happen to bridge the gap between the two. These data will strengthen the scientific understanding of how we can most effectively help. The survey was approved by Yale University's Human Subjects Committee and does not require parental consent. A copy of the survey is available on the bottom of the website.

Please consider having students fill out this survey (Closes June 1st).

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.