School Climate & Safety

How Many Kinds of Safe Zones Does a School Need?

By Ross Brenneman — August 28, 2013 3 min read
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There’s a bully for everyone.

Based on the success of the Safe Zone movement propelled by gay rights advocates, the Secular Student Alliance announced in a press release this week that it plans to start safe zones for secular students, too.

The SSA contends that despite the growth in atheism over the past decade, nonreligious students continue to face ridicule and need a place to discuss faith—or at least a lack thereof.

The SSA formed in 2000 and expanded significantly over the ensuing years, to colleges and high schools alike. Currently, 49 high schools have organized affiliates, with Texas and Florida having the most.

“We’re calling on supportive role models nationwide to stand up for these students,” says SSA spokesman Jesse Galef in the release. “Even just one teacher defending you against bullying can make all the difference in the world.”

The intent of the organization’s safe-zone training is to help teachers and others understand secularism and anti-secular bullying, and intervene where such bullying takes place.

The number of atheists and “nones” (those without a religious affiliation) continues to grow. The SSA says so in its release, and here it is in this chart, using the same statistics SSA uses, from the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life:

Long-term trends in religious belief show that Protestants and Catholics still comprise a large share of the American population, but a shrinking one. The Pew Center also found an increase in the number of children being raised without a specific set of religious beliefs. And among the youngest generation that Pew studied, the so-called Millennials, one third had no religious affiliation. Recent trends, such as the rise of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, suggest this increasing separation will not abate soon.

But a real change in dynamic is probably far away, and you can find easy evidence that this type of bullying is a real problem. If it seems over the top, consider the anti-bullying law passed in Michigan earlier this year that almost failed because it included an exemption for what critics deemed religious bullying.

Then there’s the court case, also from Michigan, of a teacher who ejected a student from the classroom for saying he couldn’t “accept gays.” A U.S. District Court judge sided with the student, saying the teacher violated free-speech rights. The question is what line separates simple speech from bullying.

The ideal solution would be for teachers to intervene in any kind of bullying. (OK, the ideal solution would be for bullying not to exist.) But safe zones usually come with a physical marker that says students with concerns can share them without fear of judgment or reprisal. Simply being an open-minded teacher is one thing, but offering overt proof of open-mindedness is another.

Another reason to justify the program is that anything that helps more than it hurts is probably worthwhile. Because here’s an understatement: Bullying sucks. Bullies, their victims, and victims who also bully will see major deleterious effects to their lives, including their health, wealth, and social behavior.

Two points of possible conflict: Will a religious student who sees a secular safe-zone marker feel unwelcome in that class? It’s impossible to know yet. Religion is a contested, complicated subject.

Second, I’ll be interested to see if there’s a similar movement along the religious side. The program only specifies protection of secular students, but I would wager that there are plenty of religiously affiliated students who question their faith, but don’t trust a minister, priest, rabbi, parent, etc., to be an impartial listener, and would enjoy discussing the issue with a teacher. After all, teachers can be pretty awesome at helping students work through life’s problems.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.