Tolerance is Tied to Safety
By Meghan Fay, Assistant Editor

Experts will agree that tolerance of differences in schools is one of the best ways to foster a safe learning environment. Currently, tolerance issues, particularly those surrounding gay students, are raising concern for student safety on both the East and West coasts. 

In Massachusetts, Boston High School students were arrested last week for allegedly sexually assaulting a 16 year-old classmate on the city’s subway system because they thought she was gay. While students were arrested on the East coast, students from El Modena High School in Orange, California took their school board, Orange Unified, to federal court last week to fight for their right to form a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) club at the school.

These incidents are not isolated events. Intolerance surrounding gay students is now in the national spotlight and these issues should raise concerns about school safety everywhere.

Even in Massachusetts, which has created a special office to deal with student hate crimes, incident still occur. David Rudewick, Student Civil Rights Director for the Massachusetts Governor's Task Force on Hate Crimes, said steady, meaningful examples of diversity, conversations and dialogues about diversity and how diversity relates to a educated community is what needs to happen in schools and communities nationwide. By doing this, "students leave the school prepared for the diversity of the world. Diversity isn't a bad thing, but a good thing. It makes communities stronger," he said. 

Actions by the students in California may accomplish this goal. They have been hailed by supporters as courageous by taking positive steps towards educating their school and community by fighting intolerance. 

School Board’s Decision in Question?

“Many persons who are heterosexual object to the term “straight” which they find offensive, demeaning, and derogatory. Labeling heterosexual people as “straight” in the club title will not promote tolerance and understanding,” said Orange Unified board member Kathy Ward in a written statement explaining why the GSA was banned. 

According to Judith Frutig, spokesperson for the Orange Unified school district, the board supports tolerance clubs but objects to the GSA because the language in the club title, specifically the words gay and straight, is age inappropriate. The board also believes it is inappropriate for the group to talk about sex. 

It is for these two reasons that the seven-member school board rejected the club’s existence. They believe that both conditions are within the scope of the 1984 federal Equal Access Act. This law prohibits high schools that have clubs and receive federal money from discriminating against any club on the basis of the speech at its meetings. 

Anthony Scariano, a Chicago lawyer on the board of the National School Boards Association’s (NSBA) attorney’s council, told the USA Today on January 17, “You can’t say, we won’t let the Black Panthers in because we don’t like what they say, but we’re going to let the Girl Scouts in because that’s wholesome.”

According to Brenda Greene, Director of School Health Programs for the NSBA, the organization’s policies state that, school boards should ensure that students are not subjected to discrimination on the basis of socioeconomic status, race, color, national origin, religion, gender disability or sexual orientation.

There is some question as to whether Orange Unified’s response falls within these guidelines. But Frutig, who claims the school immediately responds to any reports, said El Modena High does not tolerate harassment of any kind. 

Others aren't so sure. “A policy is just a policy. It doesn’t mean that kids stop being harassed,” said Luis Torres, co-chair of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) Orange County, CA Chapter and an eighth grade US History teacher. According to reports, the GSA founder, sophomore Anthony Colin, has been verbally abused, spat on and shoved down stairs because of his sexual orientation, yet no action was taken to punish his attackers.

According to reports, one location where many gay and lesbian youth feel the effects of homophobia is within their schools. Many students have created GSA clubs to educate communities, to combat homophobic views and offer peer support. In just two years, the number of gay and lesbian high school clubs has grown from less than 100 to more than 600. 

Greene agrees that a GSA club is one strategy schools might use to encourage tolerance among the student body. “It’s a matter of local decision making in the context of any state or local laws and local needs. An essential step to begin addressing issues regarding sexual orientation is to educate staff about the legal and psychosocial issues,” she said.

According to Jim Anderson, Communications Director for GLSEN, GSA clubs provide a safe place for students in an otherwise hostile environment. “These clubs are student initiated and their agendas reflect the actual needs in their communities” he said. “This (gay and lesbian student issue) is a very new topic for schools and communities. There’s a tremendous amount of misinformation. This club in Orange County wants to work towards curbing intolerance. This is a vehicle to creating a safe, nurturing learning environment for gay and lesbian students,” said Anderson.

The Issue: Sexual Activity

Although many see GSA clubs as a positive addition to a student’s extra-curricular choices, the Orange Unified school board does not agree. “The school board thinks it’s inappropriate to have a club of children that identifies themselves in terms of sexual activity,” said Frutig, who points out that Orange Unified has a policy of teaching abstinence. “We are an abstinence-based district, so to have a club that validates sexual activity violates our policy,” she said.

Supporters of the GSA, like Torres, say it is absurd to assume that discussions regarding sexual orientation equal discussions about sex. The El Modena GSA claims it promotes tolerance and insists that the club is not about sex and that sex isn’t a topic of discussion. Colin, who has been the victim of gay bashing, created the group after the high-profile death of Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old University of Wyoming student who was killed last year because he was gay, in an effort to prevent violence based on homophobia. 

“These are 15 year-old kids. They want to watch movies, gossip, hang out. They are kids. They don’t want to sit around and talk about sex,” said Torres, who has supported the group since he found out about their efforts in late October. He recently testified on behalf of the students in their federal court fight. “What we’ve (GLSEN) really done is try to provide the students with moral support and access to information,” he said.

According to Torres, when the school board demands that the students change the name of their club it implies that there is something shameful about the words “straight” and “gay”. The students at El Modena are trying to have kids come together to bring awareness, understanding and sensitivity to the issue of sexual orientation in their school, said Torres.

On Friday, the judge is expected to decide whether or not to grant an injunction, which will allow the GSA club to meet while the case makes its way through the federal court system.

A Bridge to Tolerance

Tom Mutschler, the faculty advisor for Common Ground, a GSA club at Acton-Boxborough Regional High School in Massachusetts, believes that the club encourages tolerance and increases safety. “Most of it is just a social group. It’s a group of friends. The common bond is intolerance. They (the gay and straight club members) just want everyone to be treated equally,” Mutschler said of the club, which has been in existence since 1994.

Visibility is important, he said. When kids know that there is a group such as Common Ground it is more difficult to harass students, said Mutschler. Common Ground sponsors events like coffee house socials where students socialize and listen to bands perform. In addition to social and educational events, the club attends local gay youth rallies. Mutschler explained that the club’s student leaders determine how active or inactive the club will be throughout the year. 

“All students should be tolerated with dignity and respect regardless of their cultural, ethnic, religious or social background,” said Dr. Ronald Stephens, Executive Director for the National School Safety Center. “Creating safe schools is about making the campus safe and welcoming for all students. Schools should strive for more than simply tolerance. They should work towards cooperation, collaboration, cultural and social fluency. Creating a positive learning climate requires more than just putting up with one another – it requires appreciation, respect, courtesy and trust.”

The Numbers Evoke Concern

In some states, GSA clubs and organizations for youth, not only promote tolerance, but also may address the large number of gay youth suicides.

A 1989 study by the US Department of Health and Human Services reported that gay and lesbian youth are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual youth. Suicide is the leading cause of death among gay and lesbian, youth with 30% of all completed youth suicides made by this group.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis of Massachusetts and Seattle, Washington statistics in 1997 found that gay students in MA are six times more likely to have tried suicide than straight students, while gay youth in Seattle who reported harassment were 50% more likely to have attempted suicide. 

According to a GLSEN national survey, nearly half (2 out of 5), of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth reported that they did not feel safe in their school because of their sexual orientation.

According to Greene, resources are available to educate school staff about the issues of sexual orientation. “The states of Massachusetts and Washington are two that have made great strides in developing educational and technical assistance programs for schools/districts regarding sexual orientation issues,” she said. 

Addressing Name Calling in the Classroom

According to Creating Safe Schools for Lesbian and Gay Students: A resource guide for school staff developed by Youth Pride, Inc. in April, 1997, there are proactive steps teachers can take to create a cooperative learning environment where all students feel safe. Although racial and ethnic slurs are seldom tolerated in schools, disrespectful words such as “lezzie”, “faggot”, “queer” or “dyke”  -- used to refer to gay and lesbian people -- are often heard in school hallways. These words can attack a student’s self-esteem and, if the name calling goes unchecked, it sends a message of acceptance for hatred towards homosexuals.

Below are a recommended list of exercises for establishing an inclusive classroom created by Uribe, Virginia, Fairfax High School, Los Angeles Unified School District, founder and director of PROJECT 10.

1. Have students brainstorm names they have heard people call others.
2. Write all of these words on the board.
3. Assign categories: racial, ethnic, sexual or religious bias.
4. Discuss them.
5. Make students aware that all name calling involves prejudice and disempowerment and is harmful to the person being oppressed.
* State that none of the listed names are acceptable in your classroom.
* Make it clear that you will not tolerate any form of name calling. 
* Help class participants to establish classroom rules and to brainstorm/agree upon the social consequences of breaking this rule.
* You can control behavior in your classroom. If you react immediately to any transgressions, students will feel safe in the classroom.

National Advocacy Coalition on Youth and Sexual Orientation
Judith Frutig
Jim Anderson
David Rudewick, Student Civil Rights Director for the Massachusetts Governor's Task Force on Hate Crimes
Creating Safe Schools for Lesbian and Gay Students: A resource guide for school staff
Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network
National School Safety Center
159 Burgin Parkway | Quincy, MA 02169
617-471-4445 | Fax 617-770-3339