One recent high school graduate told U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan today that her principal had a rule about what students wear to special events: girls in girls’ clothes; boys in boys’ clothes. Another said that as a 7th grader, the physical education teacher told students to run fast—"like faggots”. Yet another said a friend’s 5-year-old brother declared that something was “so gay” after hearing the phrase used in by his kindergarten classmates.
At a gathering today—one of about two dozen meetings Duncan has had with students since he took office—the focus was on the school experience of students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender and what could be done to improve it. (The Education Department asked that students not be named.)
The Obama administration has repeatedly pressed for action in schools to curb and prevent bullying, in particular of of LGBT students. The White House has hosted a national bullying conference. Schools were sent a message about how their inaction in episodes of bullying could violate students’ civil rights. And schools have been told not to hinder the formation of gay-straight student clubs.
(In related news, President Barack Obama recently announced his support for gay marriage and just this week, a federal court judge ruled the federal Defense Against Marriage Act unconstitutional, which may prompt a Supreme Court review of the law.)
Several school districts have been investigated for how they handled, or didn’t, bullying that resulted in the suicides of one or more students who were lesbian or gay.
The students at today’s meeting delighted in giving Duncan homework: They want his office to collect data on episodes of bullying, harassment, and discrimination of LGBT students, perhaps as a part of the Civil Rights Data Collection, something Duncan said he would explore. Duncan said he also liked students’ suggestion that they talk to teachers about their experiences as a form of sensitivity training.
While some of the stories students’ told were hard to hear, he said others were uplifting.
“Lots of these kids have had pretty good experiences,” he said. “That’s heartwarming,” and not something he would have expected as little as five years ago. “Things are going the right way.”