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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

Safeguarding LGBT Students

By Peter DeWitt — July 13, 2011 3 min read
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You don't have to do everything. You just have to do something." Rochester LGBT Youth

Some students in our public school system fit in to the school culture without an issue. It’s almost like they go through their school experience unscathed because they were popular, good-looking, a good athlete, or did well in school. They entered school on a daily basis feeling engaged and safe, and when they get older, as we all do, they probably remember their high school days as if they were one of the best times of their lives.

Our LGBT student population most likely feels differently. They do not always fit in, are not the most popular, are not given a second glance, unless of course it is to pick on them for being different. Many of these students never go a day unscathed, and are more likely to never attend a high school reunion or remember school fondly. Their memories often include remembering being called derogatory names.

Kosciw (2009) surveyed 7,261 students between the ages of 13 and 21 and found 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.”

With any luck they will attend a college where they meet other “like-minded” people, find their niche and become successful. Perhaps many of them will go to colleges that have supports in place for LGBT students like a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). Unfortunately that may not be the norm for many of our students, and as early as elementary school we can recognize who some of those students will be, and we do not always do enough about it.

We all know that parents play an important role in the growth and development of our students. However, sometimes we underestimate the role we play in their development or we just choose not to recognize it so we feel better about the fact that these students are not fitting in. As educators we find ourselves say, “Yeah, kids can be tough on one another,” or “I just wish he would act differently so he doesn’t make himself a target.” Sometimes we even feel it’s a right of passage and it will “build character.” We all know that cannot be further from the truth. Those students feel unsafe and they desperately need our help.

What if we could do things differently? What if we could make an impact on these students? What if we found ways to engage them through curriculum, after-school activities, or made them feel welcome in our schools by providing a safe space? We need to offer a Gay-Straight Alliance in every school which research tells us helps to create an inclusive and safe climate.

Sure, there are those LGBT students who are fortunate enough to grow up in a supportive household where they are loved. They go to a supportive and inclusive high school that educates the whole child and creates diverse experiences for them, which will help them grow into contributing members of society. However, I would venture to guess that is not the norm.

The Dignity for All Students Act which was passed in New York State in June of 2010 and will go into effect on July 1st, 2012. It stipulates that all public schools in New York State need to have board policies that include inclusive language regarding sexual orientation and gender expression, among many other areas. All states should, and hopefully will, follow this important legislation.

Over the past few years there have been a slew of suicides. The young people who have died by suicide range from kids who did not reach the teenage years to others who cut their lives short before they finished college. It is clear that we have an issue in our society that needs to be changed, and those of us who are fortunate enough to call education our choice of career can help change it by offering safeguards.

The harsh reality is that we do not see all the teasing and torment that goes on in our school, and we need to change that. Our LGBT student population often feel the most marginalized. Every time we turn the other cheek, we have lost another student and helped prevent them from finding themselves. When we ignore opportunities to help those students, we give them a reason to hate the very school system that we love.

Thank you for your time.


Kosciw, J.G., Greytak, E. A., Diaz, E. M., and Bartkiewicz, M. J. (2010). The 2009 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in our nation's schools, 26, New York: GLSEN.

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.