School Climate & Safety Opinion

What Can We Learn About Safe Schools From Arizona?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — March 09, 2014 5 min read
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In public schools, we teach inclusion and freedom of thought, expression, and religion. What was going on in Arizona? What religion teaches selling a cake or service to a gay person is wrong? Even the Pope welcomes everyone into the church...when asked about welcoming homosexuals into the church, the Pope responded, “Who am I to judge them if they’re seeking the Lord in good faith?”

How would the business in Arizona suggest that they identify gay customers? Would the next step be that gay people wear some sort of identifying clothing? Will a business be able to refuse to serve someone wearing religious headwear? A Star of David? Dark skin? This is not a freedom of religion issue. This is a civil rights issue. As a society, we have been here before and we DO NOT want to move backward and return well fought for and deserved freedoms already won. But is the veto by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer enough? What is next and why do we need to pay careful attention to this issue? For the children. Currently, Arizona mandates that

no district shall include in its course of study instruction which...(1) promotes a homosexual life-style...(2) portrays homosexuality as a positive alternative life-style...(3) suggests that some methods of sex are safe methods of homosexual sex. AZ Rev. Stat. § 15-716(c).

These laws create an unsafe atmosphere for gay youth and their classmates. It doesn’t take rocket science to connect the dots. They already have the shield of these laws to accuse gay students of choosing a “life-style.” Of course, refusing them access to businesses was the next step. Woolworths’ lunch counters come to mind.

The 2009 National School Climate Survey reported:

LGBT students in states with stigmatizing laws are more likely to hear homophobic remarks from school staff, are less likely to report incidents of harassment and assault to school staff, and are less likely to report having support from educators. Moreover, when incidents occur and educators do intervene, they do so less effectively in these states.

Until someone can prove otherwise, being gay is no more a choice than being black or white or Latino. Perhaps the right questions aren’t being asked. Why does the existence of a gay man or woman or couple disturb you? What about accepting someone else’s sexuality and relationships challenges your own? What aspects of your religion teach the repudiation of another person? Is our inclination to be with those like ourselves that innately wired?

Just as the verdict in the Trayvon Martin shooting trial was disturbing to young black men (and their parents) in America, the idea that a law was voted on and brought to the Governor of Arizona teaches that there is still fear and bias (and even hate) against our LBGT communities. As ‘coming out’ is happening at younger ages, our gay students may be even less able to understand the messages of hate because of their immaturity. So our work becomes even more important.

The Arizona laws reveal a mindset that surely places students at risk. If we don’t live in Arizona, there is no reason to ignore them...rather we should pay attention. Our world is small. Students, believe it or not, watch and listen to the news. This issue is an unresolved one and we have to address it within ourselves and our faculties, no matter the state in which we live and work.

Once we allow any group to be marginalized, their rights defined differently than the broader group, we open a door that we fought long and hard to close. Inclusion, acceptance, celebration of each other are all joyful results of growing as human beings and learning to see each human being as a worthy equal. As long as we, as a nation, do not stand up to people who twist laws into something they were not meant to be (like using freedom of religion to cover bigotry), we endanger society and our schools within it. Continue to ignore states like Arizona, who already have laws marginalizing gay people, we endanger other freedoms...it is a snowball that must be stopped.

The Center for Ethical Leadership published an article in November 2011 entitled “What is the role of public education in our society?” It states,

We need to able to hold the complexity of our challenges, construct ideas together, and work toward creative solutions, not rely on simplistic and inadequate sound bites. This requires a different public engagement where each voice matters and we can hold the creative tension of differing and competing ideas. Adding to this is the need to work with communities of color and those living in poverty, as they are most often the ones left behind by our society and public education. In this role, public education offers liberation from the limits of discrimination and marginalization. It offers a way into sharing the opportunities and benefits of society.

If we pay attention to only some of the marginalized communities of people, allowing others to be invisible, or worse, legislated against, we are disconnecting from our purpose in the long term, and placing children in danger in the short term.

Martin Niemöller, was a pastor who “emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps” is known for this quotation:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out-- 
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out-- 
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak for me.

We are busy with the challenges of the day but there may be no more important challenge than to be ever vigilant that we are not denied the right to create safe and inclusive environments for our students. These laws may exist in a state not our own. But, fear and prejudice can easily creep into our backyards. Arizona’s laws do not reflect beliefs held by only people in Arizona. Let us not let our open minded, open hearted, dedication to our work with students be challenged by laws and social movements not on our radar screen. We must pay attention and we must not stand aside.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.