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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

Why Focus on LGBT Students?

By Peter DeWitt — March 20, 2012 3 min read
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Every student has a right to feel nurtured when they enter into school.

A few weeks ago I wrote a commentary for Education Week entitled Dignity for All. It was based on my book with Corwin Press that was released last week with the same title. When I was doing my doctoral work at Sage College of Albany, my research focused on safeguarding LGBT Students. It was not a topic I had planned to discuss because I did not see the need. I’m not a fan of breaking people into different groups. However, after reading the important work of the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) I made it my area of focus.

There are some very progressive states that are changing the way schools work with their LGBT population. This is happening, not because they want to win a popularity contest, but because historically LGBT students have been one of the most harassed and tormented groups that enter schools.

In New York State, the Dignity for All Students Act, “seeks to provide the State’s public elementary and secondary school students with a safe and supportive environment free from discrimination, intimidation, taunting, harassment, and bullying on school property, a school bus and/or at a school function.” By July 1st, 2012 all schools must include protection of students based on sexual orientation and gender expression in their school board policies.

In California, they have adopted the Fair Education Act. “The Fair, Accurate, Inclusive and Respectful (FAIR) Education Act amends the education code to require schools to integrate factual information about social movements, current events and history of people with disabilities and LGBT people into existing social studies lessons. It also prevents the State Board of Education from adopting instructional materials that discriminate”.

Last year Washington State adopted RCW 28A.300.285which states that “As of August 1, 2011, all school districts in Washington are required to adopt state policy and procedure that expressly prohibit the bullying of students based on sexual orientation and gender expression and identity. The law also prohibits the harassment, intimidation and bullying of all students.

Focusing on the Issue
It’s interesting writing about LGBT issues because it can initiate a variety of responses from readers. Some readers send private e-mails to say how important it is to safeguard LGBT students. Those readers feel LGBT students are one of the most harassed groups that enter school and GLSEN’s research substantiates those feelings. Most of those e-mails come from parents or very supportive teachers who have seen way too many LGBT students get tormented.

Other readers do not share that same opinion. They have a habit of saying that we should not be focusing on just one group. They state that bullying happens to all students, which is true, and by focusing on LGBT students I am just making the issue worse. A few people wrote that LGBT students do not want the focus and asked me to stop shoving people into groups. Unfortunately, I think those strong opinions come from people who are uncomfortable with the topic or lack exposure to what really happens to those students around the country.

Often, people would prefer to enter into “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies. That does not help LGBT students. If they cannot process their feelings, much like other teenagers are allowed to do, then they cannot figure out ways to have successful futures. Many issues that teenagers suffer from are very similar but there are some issues that set heterosexual and gay students apart. Heterosexual students can more easily share their feelings with peers and adults. LGBT students often have to hide their feelings because of the fear of being tormented by peers or disowned by their families.

There have been far too many suicides and senseless deaths because kids were tormented because they were perceived to be, or really were, gay. I focus on LGBT issues in the hope that it will not be an issue in the future. Parents send their children to school so they learn. There is an expectation on the part of parents that their children will be able to learn in a safe environment. However, there are a large percentage of students who do not have that luxury.

Everyone has a right to a safe environment. Every student has a right to feel nurtured when they enter into school. It does not matter whether they are gay or straight. When they enter school, students should be allowed to be who they are and all schools have the obligation to support them.

Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students. Corwin Press. 2012.

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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.