It Can Get Better Now: Improving the School Climate for LGBT Students

As part of the 10 Ideas: A Millennial Lesson Plan for Education series, a proposed law that would make schools a safe place to learn for students of all orientations.

Two years ago, Constance McMillen, a lesbian student, was told she couldn’t take her girlfriend to her high school’s prom and wear a tuxedo. After U.S. District Court Judge Glen H. Davidson ruled that the Itawamba County School District violated the First Amendment at the court hearing, outraged parents organized a secret prom without sending an invitation to Constance. She ended up transferring to another high school. On July 20th, 2010, the school district settled by paying her $35,000 and agreeing to implement a non-discrimination policy that would include sexual orientation.

This story immediately spread like wildfire to the Facebook community, as well as to major news networks including CNN and USA Today. People furiously questioned the level of protection lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students actually have in public schools. Along with the bullying Constance faced from the students, the school board members aggravated homophobic discrimination by keeping her from attending the prom due to her sexual orientation. How could this happen? Currently only 11 states, including DC, protect LGBT youth in public schools. This means that in 39 states, LGBT students are not protected from harassment.

Homophobic harassment, especially from peers, is often present in schools. In a Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) study from 2009, 84.6 percent of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed. Over 60 percent of these students felt unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation, while 39.9 percent felt unsafe because of their gender expression. A majority, 63.7 percent, reported being verbally harassed, while 27.2 percent reported being physically harassed and 12.5 percent reported being physically assaulted at school because of their gender expression. This is a call for reforming policies in the education system nationally. These students need support.

The It Gets Better project is a collaboration of videos from celebrities, young people, and even politicians, including the president, telling LGBT youth that their lives will get better and that suicide is not the answer. Though these tearful, uplifting videos provide a sense of community and positive messages for LGBT teens, they cannot promise actual protection. A national law prohibiting the discrimination of LGBT teens can fulfill that promise.

Check out the new special issue of The Nation, guest-edited by Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick.

The Student Non-Discrimination Act can help assuage homophobic and transphobic harassment in school and forbid schools from discriminating against LGBT students. It was introduced in the 111th Congress in 2010, but was rejected. Now it has been referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions after being introduced in the Senate by Senator Al Franken and in the House by Representative Jared Polis and cosponsored by 152 members of Congress. It forces federal departments and agencies to curtail any financial assistance for public schools that prevent students from participating in programs because of their sexual preference or gender identity, or those that condone homophobic and transphobic harassment.

In addition to the enforcements this bill would provide, workshops on sensitivity to homophobia should be required for all public school teachers and administrative staff. Through these workshops, teachers and staff members will have the resources to combat homophobic and transphobic behavior in and outside of the classroom. There are already examples of successful programs for these kinds of trainings. The Rochester school district and the New York City Department of Education have a program called “Respect for All,” hosted by GLSEN, and the American Civil Liberties Union has “Making Schools Safe.” GLSEN’s survey reports that the grade point average of students who were more frequently harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender expression was almost half a grade lower than for students were less often harassed. These developmental trainings, which take place prior to the beginning of the school year, will not only boost morale, but they can lead to higher test scores.

A few days ago, I read an article on the Huffington Post introducing a program called “Stories Project: NOW” from GLSEN Greater Cincinnati. It focuses on ensuring the safety of LGBT students by offering training to create a better climate in their schools. A teacher in the video critiqued a staff member for being unsupportive and sending ignorant messages to a LGBT student:

“I was recently talking to a student who said, ‘When I went to my guidance counselor to talk about why I was being bullied, the guidance counselor repeatedly said, ‘well what can you do to change the situation?” The idea that a student should be changing their behavior because they’re being bullied is a problem and that doesn’t come from the students, that comes from the adults.”

Why should LGBT students wait to have their lives get better? They should be protected from being bullied either from fellow students or staff members now. Policies should be implemented immediately to ensure the safety of our youth and so that the stories of them taking their lives can end.

Jessica Morris is a Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network member and a first -year student at Mount Holyoke College. She majors in politics and minors in law and public policy.