They are at a higher risk for homelessness, alcohol and substance abuse, harassment, assaults, suicide, dropping out of school and truancy.
But progress continues to be made with Michigan’s public school districts that are ensuring lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and questioning (LGBTQ) students experience a welcoming, nonthreatening climate, said Kim Phillips-Knope, a Michigan Department of Education LGBTQ consultant and lead trainer.
Phillips-Knope recently visited Kent ISD to lead a Next Steps in Creating Safe Schools for Sexual Minority Youth workshop for teachers, administrators, social workers, counselors and middle and high school staff.
She said one reason the taunts and bullying of LGBTQ students have ebbed is because of an anti-bullying state law known as Matt’s Safe School Law, which requires all school districts and charter schools to adopt anti-bullying policies and submit them to the Michigan Department of Education.
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Source: Kim Phillips-Knope
But Matt’s Safe School Law does have its limitations, she said.
There are no specific groups listed for protection under Michigan’s anti-bullying law. The law does not require training, nor does it specify protection for LGBTQ students who are often the target of taunts and ridicule, as well as physical and cyber abuse.
At Greatest Risk
“Any student who doesn’t fit into gender norms or expected gender norms are at the greatest risk,” Phillips-Knope said. “As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.'”
The societal tightrope is equally challenging for LGBTQ teachers who fear coming out and thus losing their jobs, she said. Too often this leaves LGBTQ students without anyone to look up to.
“LGBTQ students need societal role models, and if teachers fear coming out, they don’t see examples they can follow,” Phillips-Knope said.
An encouraging trend she has seen is an increasing number of teachers, administrators and social workers who willingly seek training.
“Fifteen years ago, if we got 25 people to enroll in a workshop, that would have been great,” she said. “Now 50 is the capacity and we often have to wait-list people. And school districts are reaching out. They’re being faced with situations and they want to do the right thing.”
The workshop covered issues aimed at helping school officials know what the “right thing” often entails, such as understanding the challenges faced by families and schools.
Other talking points included best strategies for starting or sustaining an effective Gay-Straight Alliance student support group, and discussing practical implications of recent law and policy decisions.
Fostering a Welcoming Environment
LGBTQ students are at an increased risk for poor health and education outcomes, Phillips-Knope said.
Bullied LGBTQ youth or youth perceived as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender are more likely to skip school, smoke, use alcohol and drugs or engage in other risky behaviors, according to the Journal of Adolescent Health.
They’re also more than twice as likely as their peers to be depressed and think about or attempt suicide, according to an American Journal of Public Health report.
What may bolster a more welcoming school environment is a bill introduced by a bipartisan group of federal lawmakers that would create a broad federal prohibition against discrimination in public schools “based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity” of students.
The Student Non-Discrimination Act would provide the same specific protections for LGBTQ students in schools that Title IX provides for women.
In addition to direct discrimination, schools would be in violation of the act if they didn’t sufficiently protect students from bullying and harassment on the basis of real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.
Transgender Students at the Forefront
Less clear at the moment are the rights of transgender students, but that may change. A lawsuit before a U.S. magistrate judge for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan would clarify transgender students’ civil rights.
The suit is filed against Wyandotte Public Schools, and asserts that student Seth Tooley was discriminated against based on his status as a transgender male in violation of Title IX and the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.
The federal government has weighed in favor of Seth. The General Counsel of the U.S. Department of Education, the acting Assistant U.S. Attorney General and attorneys from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division is asking the court to “hold that the prohibition of sex discrimination under Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause encompasses discrimination on the basis of transgender status, gender identity, and sex stereotyping.”
The question of transgender students’ rights has recently been in the news elsewhere around the country. A transgender student in Maine was awarded $75,000 in damages after her school required her to use a staff restroom. Her lawsuit alleged that the school district violated the Maine Human Rights Act.
Do You Hear What I Hear?
Words can hurt or heal, Phillips-Knope said. When students enter their school building, she asked, what do they hear?
“Is respectful language used, or are there negative terms targeted at LGBTQ people?”
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