In addition to being my birthday, today is the fifth anniversary of the settlement in Flores v. Morgan Hill Unified School District. In that case, six students sued their school district after enduring horrifying homophobic harassment from their classmates while staff, teachers and administrators did nothing — even when the students asked them for help. The settlement required the district to train all staff on how to protect students from anti-LGBT harassment. It also required middle and high schools in the district to hold yearly sessions for incoming seventh graders and freshman, focused on preventing anti-gay bullying and reminding them of the punishments for homophobic harassment.
While that was a victory for all Morgan Hill students, the larger victory was a decision made earlier in the case. For the first time, in a unanimous decision, a panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that when a school knows that anti-gay harassment is going on, it has an obligation to take meaningful steps to end it and protect students.
You wouldn’t think school staff would need a court to tell them they needed to protect their students from the kind of violations these kids suffered:
- One student was told by a classmate “I want to beat you up after class but I need a baseball bat to hit you because I don’t want to get AIDS.” The teacher, who heard the threat, did nothing.
- Another student found a photograph of a bound and gagged woman with her throat slashed taped to her locker, the message “Dyke bitch. Fuck off. We’ll kill you,” scrawled across it. When she brought the death threat to the assistant principal, pleading for protection, she was told “don’t bring this trash to me anymore,” and sent back to class.
- A seventh grade boy was attacked at his bus stop, beaten so badly by classmates yelling “Faggot!” that he required medical attention. The school bus driver arrived at the scene, ignored the fight, let the attackers board, and drove off, leaving the student bleeding on the side of the road.
The decision in Flores explicitly stated what most educators already knew was their duty: you cannot know that this is going on in your school and continue to let it happen.
Since the 1990’s, when the harassment at issue in Flores took place, there has been much more awareness of homophobic and transphobic bullying and harassment in schools. YetLGBT students still report being harassed at alarming rates. A GLSEN study released just months ago noted that almost nine out of ten LGBT students reported being harassed at school, with one-third saying they had skipped school in the past month because they felt unsafe. Catch that last part? One out of three LGBT students have skipped a day of school in the past month out of fear for their safety. That. Ain’t. Right.
Fortunately, there are proven steps that anyone involved in a school community can take to make their school safer. Teachers can make their classrooms a “Safe Space” for LGBT students. Students can start a Gay-Straight Alliance. Administrators, staff and parents can all play a role, and you can find out how on our website.
Schools can also participate in No Name-Calling Week, an annual week of educational activities aimed at ending name-calling and bullying of all kinds in schools. No Name-Calling Week happens at the end of this month, January 26–30, 2009, and you can get all kinds of free resources on their website.
My birthday wish is that some of you reading this will check out our resources, go to the No Name-Calling Week site, and take action to make schools in your community safer for LGBT students. That would be the best present I could get.