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Safe and Supportive School Environments for LGBTQ+ Youth

Monday, June 3, 2019

We all know how important it is to keep kids healthy, safe, supported, and encouraged in school. However, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students are 50% more likely than their peers to have been bullied at school or online in the past year. This information is reported from the DPI Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS): LGBT is used here to represent the specific data collected from the YRBS. Other instances of the abbreviation include further representation.  

LGBT youth report higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation, and are less likely to feel supported and connected to their school. They are the least likely group to have a supportive adult at school: about 40% say that they do not have one teacher or another adult at school they can talk to if they have a problem.

Currently, there are myriad educators and allies around the state working to foster more inclusive and supportive environments for every student. Teachers, school counselors, social workers, and others credit their students as the reason and driving force for the creation of safe spaces and learning environments, often through the establishment of a Gay Straight Alliance, also referred to as Gender Sexuality Alliance, or simply, GSA within their schools.

These groups are formed in many different capacities and operate based on local decisions and scheduling, all with the explicit mission of increasing “the capacity of LGBTQ+ students, educators, and families to create schools in Wisconsin where all youth thrive” (GSAFE 2019).

Several educators agreed to share their perspectives on why they helped start a GSA in their setting. They talked about how they spread awareness, knowledge, and tolerance; associated positive outcomes; and advice for anyone interested in becoming a GSA advisor.

Nate Campbell is a language arts teacher for the Badger Ridge Middle School in Verona, and the Badger Ridge/Core Knowledge GSA advisor. The middle school started the GSA last year, forming partnerships with the Savannah Oaks Middle School and the high school.

Attendance has more than doubled this year. “In Verona, we believe that every child must be successful. My work with the GSA is supporting the efforts of students who are LGBTQIA+ and their allies to feel safe and successful in school,” Campbell stated.

The GSA has done several things to help realize that mission. They painted the all-gender bathroom to make it more welcoming. More than 100 students participated in the National Day of Silence, a “student-led event where folks take a vow of silence to highlight the silencing and erasure of LGBTQ people at school” (GLSEN, n.d.).

Meeting their mission requires branching out of the school day. They sent several 7th and 8th-grade students to attend a performance of "Fun Home" by Forward Theatre, and have hosted “Friday Fun Nights” to show movies and enjoy conversation throughout the year. Finally, they are kicking off June as Pride Month with a contest. “We hosted a school-wide Pride Month Trivia Contest the first week in June last year and will again this year,” Campbell said.

Including the larger community in efforts to foster more inclusive, safe, and equitable spaces is a cornerstone of other successful GSAs in the state.

Joshua Morey, a school social worker for the Rice Lake Area School District (RLASD), serves as a GSA advisor for the high school and middle school GSA clubs. In Rice Lake, the GSAs organize annual community discussions regarding gender, sex, and sexuality. This year, following the National Day of Silence, they organized a “Breaking the Silence” show for the community where students and a parent shared poetry, songs, stories, art, and other creative work where they found inspiration, courage, and meaning.

Because of the GSA’s efforts, every RLASD staff person, including custodial, food service, teacher, aide, administrator, and all new hires, receive training regarding gender and sexuality inclusive practices. “RLASD staff regularly use our students’ preferred names and pronouns and respect students’ rights to facilities and activities that align with their identities,” Morey said.

Because of the GSA’s efforts, the RLASD Board of Education changed its nondiscrimination policy to include gender identity and gender expression.

As a newcomer to the world of GSA advising, Sadie Vendl, is working with students to spread awareness within their school and small community. Vendl is the Lakeland Union High School Counselor. “With an abundance of clubs and activities already at our school, I felt GSA was one of the more important ones that was missing,” she stated. “All students have a right to feel welcome and safe in the school they attend and I felt starting a GSA would help a population of our students feel seen, heard, and accepted. This is only the beginning of a long journey of spreading tolerance, acceptance, and knowledge for the LGBTQ+ community.”

Each GSA advisor shared advice for new advisors and for anyone interested in starting a GSA in your local context:

  • Find ways to balance the different interests students will have in joining a GSA. Some might be looking for an organization to engage in advocacy at the school, school district, and/or community, while others might seek to learn more about different issues, while others might seek support for their personal challenges, and others still might simply be looking for a space where they get to socialize, make friends, and “be themselves.”
  • Use the existing wisdom – GSAFE is a wonderful resource, as are other GSA advisers, many of whom have experienced or are experiencing the same challenges, riddles, and successes as you. The GSA Network is also a good resource.
  • Students can provide excellent wisdom and leadership – they’re living the struggle, and we can work with them to cultivate the skills and confidence to develop their own sense of agency.
  • Build relationships with reliable allies in your buildings and districts - including staff and other student organizations.
  • Build relationships with other community organizations and institutions.
  • Do your research and then go for it!

For more information, visit the DPI Safe Schools for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Students web page and the Family Acceptance Project website.

References

GLSEN. n.d. “Day of Silence.” Accessed May 28, 2019. https://www.glsen.org/day-    silence

GSAFE. 2019. “Mission, Vision & Values” Accessed May 28,     2019. https://gsafewi.org/about-us/mission-vision-values/