May 26, 2018
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Making schools safe, welcoming

By Peter Rees, Special to the BDN

Much work remains to make our schools safe and respectful places for all students. Bullying, harassment and shunning are still far too common, especially in many of our middle and high schools, despite serious efforts to improve school climate. That is a violation of our legal and moral responsibility to provide equal access to education for all of our students. Kids do not learn well where they feel unsafe and unwelcome.

Among those who have been striving to improve the situation are, foremost, very many teachers and other school personnel. In addition, some Maine government agencies have been making good efforts to improve school climate. There are also several nongovernmental organizations and many volunteer individuals who make school safety a priority. Among those is an organization for which I volunteer, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, or GLSEN. We know that students who someone thinks may be gay are more likely than most other students to be targeted for frequent and often vicious harassment, sometimes including physical vio-lence. And we know that too many Maine schools still tolerate that to some degree. Safety for all must not mean all except the gay ones, even though, as the very recent referendum has shown, anti-gay attitudes are still widespread in our society.

I’m not talking about a small number of students. By high school, 5 percent of Maine students identify as gay or lesbian, though many fear to tell anyone. That’s more than 3,000 at any time in Maine. (Another 5 percent will figure it out later.) At least 10 percent of students in all grades have a loved one they know is gay or les-bian. With a public school population of 213,000 students, that’s more than 20,000 of them.

It would be really nice if something as simple as having school rules would do the job. But those rules need to be backed up with policies and procedures that are spelled out clearly and implemented regularly. Even that is not enough. Much education and psychology research shows that by far the best way to reduce harassment is to increase understanding, empathy and acceptance. That is why many of our schools include instruction about various cultures, religions, disabilities, race and sexual orientations.

They are not trying to “promote” any skin color or disability or religion, and they are not trying to “promote” homosexuality. What they are trying to promote is respect, understanding and safety. It’s their job, and it’s required by their professional organizations and the law. They understand that it is faint comfort to a student to get the tacit message: “We’ll tolerate you, but we don’t notice when others call you or your loved ones degrading names. Basically we think you deserve it, or at least we are afraid to stand up for you.”

Among the best ways to reduce the hostile atmosphere in a school, is for students to organize a Gay-Straight Alliance and for the adults there to support that. We in GLSEN work to encourage and help GSAs, and are pleased that they exist in an increasing number of Maine high schools.

Now that the marriage equality referendum is over, I hope sincerely that the people who abused our honest efforts to make schools safer will stop doing that. During the referendum campaign they claimed relentlessly that there is something wrong with helping children overcome the anti-gay attitudes that are so prevalent in this society. That has been harmful to the well-being and educational achievement of many of our children. They are citizens, and their parents, including those who are gay, pay taxes, work and vote. They are entitled to equal protection under the law. Unless the anti-gay groups admit that they believe it is a good idea to harass and bully children they should agree to cut it out. It’s not open season on kids.

Peter Rees is a retired psychologist and educator who lives in Trenton.

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