Equity & Diversity

High School Students Stay Silent To Protest Mistreatment of Gays

By Darcia Harris Bowman — April 17, 2002 3 min read
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Students at 1,776 high schools across the country protested harassment of gay students last week by refusing to speak for an entire school day, organizers of the event say.

Called the “Day of Silence” and coordinated by the New York City-based Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, or GLSEN, the event was started in 1996 on college campuses, but has spread in recent years to high schools. This year, in fact, GLSEN officials reported that high schools far outnumbered the 346 colleges and universities that participated in the April 10 protest.

The vow of silence taken simultaneously by thousands of students is intended to draw attention to what many advocacy groups say is a widespread and persistent problem: the bullying and harassment of students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or “transgender"—or simply perceived as such.

“The Day of Silence is a response to a major school safety issue,” said Eliza Byard, the deputy executive director of GLSEN. “Harassment in schools really takes a toll on young people and can keep them from getting the education they deserve.”

The bullying of students in school based on their sexual orientation is compounded by a widespread tendency of teachers and administrators to ignore the maltreatment, according to a two-year study of the issue released last year by Human Rights Watch, a watchdog group in New York City. (“Report Says Schools Often Ignore Harassment of Gay Students,” June 6, 2001.)

Most schools lack policies against harassment based on sexual orientation, the report found, and only five states have laws that prohibit discrimination against gay youths in school; no federal law is aimed specifically at protecting homosexual students.

Advocates for gay students contend that the lack of protection leaves such students vulnerable and afraid to report the abuses they suffer from their classmates.

“For many schools, this [day] may be the first time they’ve been made aware of what is a live issue for their students,” Ms. Byard said.

Sound of Silence

Students organizing silent protests at their schools last week reported varying levels of support for their efforts from teachers and administrators.

John Malloy, a 16-year-old gay student at Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Ky., organized events for his 1,700-student school as well as two other city schools.

“We have widespread teacher support,” Mr. Malloy said. “Unfortunately, our [school] administration has dropped the ball on expressly approving the Day of Silence, choosing instead to maintain an attitude of indifference.”

The school’s principal could not be reached for comment.

Phil Lindquist, a 17-year-old bisexual football player at the 970-student Pittsford-Mendon High School outside Rochester, N.Y., said students who participated at his school remained silent from the start of the school day at 7:45 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“I do think they are singled out,” Mr. Lindquist said of students who are not heterosexual. “I myself have received some comments that have hurt.”

But administrators and teachers have backed the students’ plans, he said, and “teachers at our school are gradually getting more involved in stopping the discrimination.”

‘Significant’ Problem

Administrators at Pittsford-Mendon High agreed to support the Day of Silence activities as long as students still participated in class when called upon—a condition to which organizers in the school’s Gay/Straight Alliance agreed.

“There will be no impact on instruction or safety,” Principal Karl R. Thielking said Tuesday.

The school does not have a specific policy to deal with harassment based on sexual orientation—part of GLSEN’s agenda—and relies instead on a general anti-harassment policy.

Only a few incidents of anti-gay harassment have been reported to the school’s administration, Mr. Thielking said, “but if you were to talk to students in our school who are impacted, they would say [the problem] is significant.

“To my knowledge, it doesn’t rise to the level of physical attacks,” he added. “It has a lot to do with our society’s use of the word ‘fag’ and other words like that.”

In Missoula, Mont., 18-year-old Michael Parrish said, teachers and administrators “have been supportive of student expression and particularly of this event.” The city’s Hellgate High School, which Ms. Parrish attends, “has a special focus on diversity, and this fits in well with that message,” she said.

But when it comes to preventing harassment of gays in general at the 1,230-student school, she said, “I think the administration does the best it can, but too many students who are singled out are too afraid to come forward.”

This is the fourth year that the Gay/Straight Alliance at the school has organized local participation in the Day of Silence, said Ms. Parrish, who has a gay parent but is heterosexual herself.

A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2002 edition of Education Week as High School Students Stay Silent To Protest Mistreatment of Gays

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