Making Schools Safe - An Overview of the Program

April 5, 2001
Organizing Manual For "Making Schools Safe"

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The "Making Schools Safe" program is a model training workshop designed for affiliates of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other organizations interested in promoting school safety to help them work with educators to combat anti-gay harassment in local schools. The program is intended to be a resource that local groups can offer to school districts to help them stem harassment early—before they wind up facing litigation. It is an initiative of the ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, modeled on a highly successful effort developed by the Howard A. Friedman First Amendment Education Project of the ACLU of Northern California and implemented throughout the northern California region.

What this program can offer to schools is simple: a workshop that should be mandatory for all teachers and administrators, to talk about how to create a safe and open environment for lesbian and gay students. The workshop is not about sex, it is not about morality, and it is not "Gay 101." Instead, it is about safety, equal access and equal protection. It is about making sure that every student feels that they can achieve their best in school in an environment free of hostility. And it is about taking pro-active steps to prevent the anti-gay attitudes that may exist in a school from turning into harassment and escalating into violence.

What we offer in these materials is a straightforward, easy to follow model to make the workshops happen. This manual contains step-by-step guidance on pulling the program together, including sample agendas, pointers on locating the right people to participate, letters, talking points, and all the additional materials you will need to conduct a successful workshop. In the accompanying packets are "lesson plans" for the trainers, suggestions on preparing them for the workshops, and the handouts and information you can use at the schools. And we offer you the support and backup you need to make the program a success.

The materials can also be broken out into sections to allow you to tailor the workshops, focus on specific parts, or delegate responsibility for some sections to other groups.

The Need

For lesbian and gay teens, school is often a nightmare. Harassment from classmates is common-place, particularly in many schools where teachers and principals tolerate it. A study of Massachusetts high school students published in the journal Pediatrics reported that more than 25% of self-identified gay teens said they had recently missed school because of fear for their safety, a sharp contrast to the 5% of heterosexual teens who had. Nearly one-third of gay teens had recently been threatened with a weapon at school, compared to 7% of heterosexual students.

Peer support is difficult to find because lesbian and gay student groups are often discouraged or even prohibited. Survival often means painful self-denial for lesbian and gay youth. It is little wonder, therefore, that the Pediatrics study revealed that more than one-third of all gay teens reported having attempted suicide, three times the 9.9% for self-identified straight teens.

Indeed, schools rarely offer supportive programs for gay youth. Comprehensive information on sexuality, AIDS/HIV, and other lesbian and gay teen concerns is desperately needed, yet schools choose instead to tolerate, if not actively foster, environments hostile to the development of healthy gay youth. For instance, in one recent study, 53% of high school students report hearing homophobic slurs such as "faggot" from their teachers.

At the ACLU, we see first-hand the need to address these problems. Parents and students contact us to tell painful stories of harassment and abuse, followed by persistent complaints to administrators who do not even try to stop it. Over and over, we hear the frustration and anger of students who wish they could convince their school authorities to be more sensitive and responsive. With this program, we can offer a tangible suggestion for help before the problem escalates to the point of litigation. And we can offer school administrators the tools they need to take creative, system wide steps toward change.

Schools must be places where it is safe, both physically and psychologically, for any young person to be himself or herself. A positive, supportive learning environment will make it easier for lesbian and gay kids to cope, and will have a profound influence on the attitudes of their heterosexual peers.

The Opportunity

Many school district administrators do not realize that they can face liability in court if they fail to end anti-gay harassment in their schools. But recent lawsuits from all over the country are making it clear: school environments must be safe for all students, gay and straight alike, or administrators and teachers may be liable. Districts are beginning to sit up and take notice that a failure to take action to stop anti-gay abuse can lead to protracted litigation, bad publicity, and expensive judgments in favor of the students who suffered.

Rather than legal defeats and big bills for school districts, we seek day-to-day changes in school practices nationwide. Many school districts have already added sexual orientation in their non-harassment and non-discrimination policies. But in others, there is still significant resistance. And even where a policy is in place, enforcement is crucial. Some administrators may not recognize the daily harassment that goes on in their schools. Some may think it's harmless. Some may simply think there is nothing they can do to stop it.

The challenge is to help school administrators and teachers understand that the problem is real, that they have a legal responsibility to address it, and that there are effective and simple ways for them to do that. And that the ACLU can help.

The Goals

The program has two simple goals:

  • To alert school districts that they have a duty—backed up by legal liability—to change a school culture that ignores or promotes homophobia.
  • To provide those districts with the skills and resources they need to promote an environment that does not tolerate harassment.

Why the ACLU?

This program can be implemented and the materials used by any interested organization, and we encourage anyone using this manual to work with a local ACLU office in implementing this program.

The ACLU, through our network of affiliates nationwide, is particularly well-suited to take on the challenge of anti-gay harassment in schools. For one thing, the ACLU is a nationwide organization and has the capacity to watchdog school officials all across the nation—and to follow with a lawsuit if we find persistent and egregious institutionalized gay bias. Second, most school officials are familiar with the ACLU because we have long been a presence in schools where civil liberties are at issue. While the ACLU can be a formidable and tenacious foe when things end up in court, the goal of the "Making Schools Safe" project is to fix the problem before it gets to that point. Further, the fact that the ACLU advocates for the protection of constitutional rights for all diminishes the credibility of those who say gay kids should not have "special rights."

What is more, local allies interested in promoting school safety for lesbian and gay youth can benefit from the expertise of ACLU affiliates that are already doing this work. Over the past two years, the ACLU of Northern California has developed an effective and simple model that can be replicated in school districts around the country. Working together with the San Francisco Unified School District's Health Program's Support Services for Sexual Minority Youth, it has developed educational materials and conducted successful workshops for educators throughout their region. Here, the accumulated experience and materials are adapted into this simple guide. This program, though, is not just a manual. The ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project is also committed to working closely with you to help implement it, with resources and staff time.

The Workshops

The program is simple: it offers school officials a way to educate themselves and all teachers about the harmful effects of homophobia, and to develop skills to address it. The focus of the program is a workshop for teachers and administrators on how to create a safe environment for everyone, but especially for young people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, questioning their sexual identity, whom others perceive as gay, or who have gay or lesbian family members.

The workshops are specially designed to respond to the calls of concern we get from students, parents, and teachers about severe anti-gay harassment and even violence at their schools. These complaints are often characterized by stories of inaction on the part of some teachers and administrators and, at times, even endorsements of the anti-gay attitudes. Also, many teachers have requested guidance on how best to deal with homophobia in their schools, and what kind of legal support they can expect if they do so.

The workshop ideally runs for two and a half hours and has three primary components. One is an interactive panel presentation by one or two students who are gay, lesbian or bisexual (preferably students who have graduated from that school), discussing their experiences. The second is a legal presentation by an attorney about the duties of educators to promote a safe environment and to end anti-gay harassment. The third is a series of exercises led by a local teacher designed to assist teachers in dealing with anti-gay attitudes in the schools, including video clips and role-playing scenarios interspersed throughout other segments. Ultimately, it provides practical suggestions about how to address name-calling in the classrooms and hallways, and how to build support for a campus-wide approach making the environment safe for all students.

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