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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

The Day of Silence

By Robert McGarry — April 20, 2012 4 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by my friend Dr. Robert McGarry. Robert is a former NJ school district administrator who now serves as the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network’s (GLSEN) Director of Education.

This Friday, students in schools across the country will observe what is known as the National Day of Silence, a day of action during which students pledge to let silence occupy their school in a collective effort to call attention to the silencing effect of anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT), harassment and discrimination in schools. The day’s roots go back to 1996 and the campus of The University of Virginia. Today, GLSEN serves as the national steward of the initiative, which has become the largest student-led action calling attention to the need to create safe and affirming schools for all, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

Anyone who has ever visited or worked in a school on a day when the students in that school are participating in the Day of Silence knows how striking the sound (or lack of sound) can be. Schools rarely take on such a reflective atmosphere. As educators, such silence can make us uncomfortable, especially the kind of intentional and meaning-filled silence that is practiced on this day. But it’s not the silence on this day that should give us the greatest concern. It’s really the everyday silence around LGBT issues and the negative outcomes this silence has for so many students that ought to make us uncomfortable. Of course that silence is sometimes harder to hear - or is it?

I always wonder what other educators hear in the silence that the Day of Silence brings each year. How might we as educators listen to and respond to that silence? Do we listen? Do we hear the sounds of the silencing that prompted the creation of the day in the first place?

Do we know, for example, that the most recently released National School Climate Survey (2009) results issued by GLSEN show that 63.7% of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed in their school? Have we, like 72.4% of the students surveyed, heard homophobic remarks frequently or often in our schools? Do we know what painful sounds these are? Do we find it surprising that 86.5% of the students reported that they felt distressed to some degree by this language? Could we as educators have missed these sounds? It certainly seems possible since 62.4% of students who were harassed or assaulted in school did not report the incident to school staff, believing little to no action would be taken. In other words, LGBT students have learned to anticipate the silence of educators.

And yet, there are other sources of LGBT-related silence in schools requiring an even closer listening. For example, less than half (47.4%) of the LGBT students who participated in GLSEN’s 2009 National School Climate Survey reported that they could find information about LGBT people and history or events in their school library, while only a little more than a third (39.3%) of students with Internet access at school reported being able to access LGBT-related information via school computers. Add to this that a significant source of silence comes from the curriculum we design and implement in our schools and classrooms.

Only 17.9% of students of the over 7,000 who participated in the survey reported that LGBT-related topics were included in textbooks or other assigned class readings and the vast majority of them (86.6%) reported they had not been taught anything about LGBT people, history, or events in their classes. Add this to the anti-LGBT language students report hearing and the lack of response to it and you can begin to understand the silence that so many LGBT students face.

When educators fail to respond to issues they encounter or to implement strategies that foster a more inclusive and affirming school environment, they perpetuate the silence experienced by LGBT youth. We must not let the cacophony of the complicated life educators lead in schools allow us to miss the silence that is so present.

The Day of Silence offers an opportunity for us to truly hear what for LGBT youth is the soundtrack of their everyday school experience. One of the best ways to do this is to attend a Breaking the Silence event. Many groups in schools choose to end the day with an opportunity for participants to finally speak out about their experience of the day.

Attending the event with an ear focused on listening for answers to the following questions can help educators begin to take action to end the daily silence:
  1. How do LGBT students experience our school?
  2. How do I as an educator influence the way our school is experienced by LGBT students?
  3. What are the sources of silence around LGBT issues in our school?
  4. How can we make breaking the silence less of an event and more of an expected every day practice?

As educators we are faced with daily opportunities to engage in silence-breaking practices. Intervening in bullying, including LGBT history, events or people in our lessons, using language that is LGBT inclusive, avoiding language and practices that are not LGBT-inclusive , and responding when anti-LGBT speech is used in the hallway, cafeteria, or our own classrooms or offices are just a few ways that as educators we can take the lead from students and break the silence.

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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.