LGBTQ Students Need Support: How Safe School Ambassadors Can Help

May 25 2016


  • De Palazzo, Statewide Safe Schools Director, Equality Florida
    De Palazzo
    Statewide Safe Schools Director, Equality Florida

How do we help school-based professionals become more aware of and sensitive to the unique challenges lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth face in today’s elementary, middle and high schools?

When we take a sober look at harassment and bullying in school communities, we know that anti-gay bullying is rampant and, of great concern, often unchecked. A 2013 survey by the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) of approximately 8,400 middle and high school students that identify as LGBTQ from across the United States tell us that nearly 7 out of 10 LGBTQ students experienced harassment at school in the past year and nearly two-thirds felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation. We also know that high levels of harassment and bullying correlate with poorer educational outcomes, lower future aspirations, frequent school absenteeism and lower grade point averages.

 Sexual orientation, gender identity and expression are layers of diversity. For some of us, accepting that there are people that identify as LGBTQ may be counter to our beliefs, values or personal faith. But honoring one’s beliefs does not have to run counter to accepting a person’s LGBTQ identity as evidence of our human diversities, nor to caring about the physical, mental and emotional well-being and safety of LGBTQ students and the importance of ensuring a safe school environment for all.

The challenges that students and people who identify as LGBTQ face and the resiliency necessary to circumvent the challenges are present and palpable in all of our nation’s schools. Add in the intersecting marginalities of race, ethnicity, socio-economics, language and faith and these challenges become even more palpable. The school district that is my home, Broward County Public Schools in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is not an exception. As an educator and social justice advocate for numerous years, I have the well-timed opportunity to design programs that help to ensure LGBTQ well-being. I know the population of students and adults in our schools is simply, yet powerfully, a microcosm of our larger community, including South Florida, Florida, the United States and our world. We do not live in a vacuum and we are aware of that every day as we maneuver and negotiate our day-to-day life happenings and responsibilities. BCPS is one district that exemplifies care, forward thinking and a safety focused culture. That said, we also know culture and climate begin in our hallways, classrooms, and cafeterias.

What is a positive school climate? A positive climate means that youth and adults feel valued and “connected” at the school; it is a place where youth know that aware and empathetic peers and teachers have their back. It is the feelings and attitudes elicited by a school’s physical and psychological environment; these both influence us and are influenced by us. Positive school climate includes, but is not limited to, the sense of belonging that everyone feels within a school. Schools that exemplify a strong and healthy culture and climate have a higher sense of connectedness among and between students and staff and a lower level of mistreatment and violence.

So, what might it be like for a young person in our school system who identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, gender fluid, or who is questioning their identity? Here is a quote from a South Florida student who identifies as gay: “Where I was brought up…there’s that island culture that is strongly against homosexuality. I would feel like I would want to kill myself. I felt like I was a mistake. I wanted to be someone else.”

This is the critical moment that a Safe School Ambassador can step up in ways which we know can be safe, cool and highly effective. As students realize their sexual identity and gender orientation younger, it is essential that this school community’s population have the emotional support to ensure their mental and physical health and well-being.

We have Safe School Ambassadors in our hallways, classrooms and cafeterias making a difference every single day, by subtly taking the pulse of moment-to-moment interactions as students are at work or at play during the school day. In a typical middle school of 1500 students, as many as 150 youth who are LGBTQ could be present, whether closeted or out. The brief, well-timed and powerful words of putting up a put-down by an Ambassador during a “balancing” Ambassador action can literally be a life-line to personal and schoolwide safety for a transgender, gender fluid or LGB student. We know Ambassadors are socially influential opinion leaders, and that the message sent by supporting, directing and getting fellow peers to think about their actions with empathy clearly generates both empowerment and resiliency for LGBTQ youth who may not otherwise feel safe, connected, valued or respected in their school communities.

In closing, we know that many school districts across our nation have bullying, harassment and discrimination policies that include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected groups, just like our enumerated and marginalized identities that relate to race, class, religion, ability. Yet, some still do not. Title IX of the Education Amendment Acts of 1972 reminds us that in every school in our nation, discrimination based on sex in education programs and activities that receive federal funding, including gender-based harassment tied to LGBTQ bullying, is a violation of federal law and will not be tolerated. It is our professional, ethical and legal responsibility to value the worth of every person from every background and identity, and to do our best to ensure their physical, mental and emotional safety. Our students who identify as LGBTQ are no exception.

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