Could Matthew Shepard's murder have been prevented by education in our schools? Should school curricula put the spotlight on gay heroes as it does on famous black Americans or great women in history? Are schools doing enough to support gay teens? Those are among the questions that educators are grappling with in the days following the brutal slaying in Wyoming. Recent court decisions might help educators as they attempt to do the right thing for their students and communities.
Was the brutal slaying this month of college student Matthew Shepard preventable? Was it a crime condoned by a society that -- subtly or not-so-subtly -- reinforces or legitimizes anti-gay and -lesbian attitudes? Was it a crime that could have been prevented by education in the schools?
"What happened to Matthew is a magnification of the sort of hate that is normalized and goes on in our schools and our society, without consequence or rebuke, every day," says John Spear, national field director for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). "It's critical that we let our schools and teachers in our communities know that there are things that they can do to make a difference."
Talking about the Matthew Shepard murder is one of those "things."
"Approach this as you would any pertinent current events issue and allow your students to share what they know, and to discuss their feelings," adds Spear.
In the days after the murder, GLSEN posed a series of questions worth discussing and writing about in the classroom setting:
"As they say, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out a major component of solutions to these nightmarish scenarios," states Robert Lupo in a letter to the editor of the Miami Herald. "To reduce these horrific behaviors, schools must teach respect for all... [Education] can make the world a safe place for all, and lessen the chances that brutal savagery as witnessed in Wyoming will occur."
So began Sadasivan's story, told last month at the Back to School News Conference sponsored by GLSEN.
"By the time Robbie knew he was gay, at age 10, he was already aware of society's hatred of people like him," Sadasivan continued. "...When my family and I realized that Robbie was gay we let him know immediately that we loved, supported, and accepted him. After all, we had raised him to believe that God loves and accepts everyone despite their differences... But our efforts could not protect him from the rejection and harassment he experienced..."
Robbie Kirkland made his first suicide attempt when he was in the eighth grade. His suicide note began "Whatever you find, I'm not gay" and ended "Robbie Kirkland, the boy who told himself to put on a smile, shut up, and pretend you're happy. It didn't work."
In spite of a family that rallied to support him after that attempt at suicide, the harassment continued.
"Robbie shot himself in the head on January 2, 1997," Sadasivan told the audience, "four months into his ninth grade year. It was the end of Christmas break. He was fourteen, and was found by my nineteen-year-old daughter, Danielle. I believe his timing to be intentional so that he could avoid the pain of returning to school."
Since Robbie's death, Sadasivan has told his story to anyone who would listen, "in the hope of bringing some good from this tragedy."
"My funny feeling was brought on by the anxiety I felt about going back to school -- an anxiety which was not unique to me..." says Jennings. "But my funny feeling was heightened as a teenager when I realize I was gay and when other kids started calling me faggot. Whereas the end of summer meant simply a return to the grind of homework during elementary school, it came to mean the return to a place of terror in high school, a place where I could count on harassment and isolation as being part of my normal school day."
Today, Jennings is the executive director of GLSEN, and he shared his "funny feeling" at the press conference held to release the results of the 1998 GLSEN Back to School Report Card. The results, said Jennings, "are not pretty."
In a survey of the nation's 42 largest school districts, attended by approximately five and a half million students (or nearly 10 percent of all students in school in America), we have precious little evidence that school districts care at all about what happens to gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered (GLBT) students, says Jennings. Nearly half of the districts receive a failing grade because "they do not have a single policy or program in place to protect the rights of GLBT students."
Jennings pointed to additional statistics that support GLSEN's findings: · The Minnesota Attorney General's 1998 "Safe Schools" report cited GLBT students as the most frequent victims of harassment in the state's schools. · The Massachusetts Department of Education reported that one in five GLBT students skips school at least once a month because they feel unsafe there (which is five times the rate of non-GLBT students). · The Seattle public school districts found that one in six GLBT students would be attacked and physically injured so badly at some point in their high school careers that they'd have to see a doctor.
"When students are confronted with such harassment and bigotry, and authority figures remain silent, they learn too well the lesson that they are literally worth less than their peers -- as Robbie [Kirkland] did -- and often with equally tragic consequences," said Jennings.
School administrators in Miami-Dade County were honored for developing a board policy that forbids discrimination against gay and lesbian students and teachers; for providing awareness training for teachers; and for providing counseling and clubs for gay and lesbian students.
"Our big issue is safety," Edda Cimino, a retired Dade teacher who co-chairs the South Florida Chapter of GLSEN, said in a Miami Herald news story (9/10/98). "These students have a right to learn in a safe environment. If they don't feel safe, they won't learn."
About 300 to 400 of Dade's 83,000 high school students are openly gay, according to GLSEN estimates published in the Herald. Guidance counselors at 22 of the 31 high schools in Dade offered support last year for gay and lesbian students, said Cimino. Five high schools had clubs for their students.
But the schools have a long way to go, adds Cimino. Currently, training is voluntary for teachers and security personnel. GLSEN wants the training to be mandatory.
"Everything is relative," Cimino told the Herald. "If you're going to put it on a normal scale of what we should have, we're a D-. But when we're compared to what's going on in other school districts, we're an A."
"I think we are making headway," Patricia Terrell told Education World. Terrell is a high-school special education teacher and a trainer in the California Teachers Association's "Gay and Lesbian Youth: Breaking the Silence" program. The program provides tips and strategies for caring people to put in place in their classrooms or schools.
"Put-downs and name-calling are actions which are increasingly frowned on in schools," says Terrell. "Sexually explicit names as well as homophobic slurs are being discouraged, but I fear the specter of lawsuits contributes to this rather than a genuine acceptance or tolerance of sexual minority youth."
"Educators who come to our workshops do so entirely by choice," she adds. "As such, we often find we are 'preaching to the choir.'
Terrell tells of several successful programs, including Project 10 at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles. That project provides dropout prevention support targeted at gay, lesbian and bisexual youth. Another school program, Eagle Pride, is an alternative school sponsored by the Los Angeles city schools and located in the former Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center. Eagle Pride was featured in a video, "Setting the Record Straight."
Adults have even participated in the harassment of some students thought to be homosexual, adds Reis.
The Safe Schools Coalition's report documents 91 incidents of anti-gay harassment, abuse, or assault in 30 school districts statewide, according to a Seattle Times report (11/12/97). Seventy-four of those incidents targeted teens or children. There were 19 physical assaults. Adults witnessed about one-fourth of those incidents, but took action in only half of them. Among the incidents documented by the Times:
"In trying to prevent and respond to harassment," the report continues, "school officials are confronting a problem not even acknowledged a decade ago... Harassment laws are in flux, attitudes among parents vary widely, and there is no consensus about how schools should respond to openly gay students."
If a racial slur is used to address somebody, "usually the staff know what to do," Oliver Lancaster, head of human relations for Montgomery County (Maryland) schools, told the Post. "But that has not been the case with words related to homosexuals." And if anti-gay remarks aren't dealt with, students might quickly conclude that those remarks are acceptable.
Part of the problem is that when some school officials "think of homosexuality, they think of sex," Carol Dopp, counseling director at the National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C., told the Post. And that's a sensitive issue. The training sessions Dopp leads focus instead on the issues of fear, self-hate, isolation, and depression that youths often deal with as they struggle with their gay identities.
At her previous school, student Shawn Kymn was uncomfortable. "Every time you went to class, you'd stop outside, take a deep breath, and then pull the door open," she told the paper. "All the focus [at Walt Whitman] is on studying and getting ready for tests, not on sexuality."
But in its first weeks of operation in 1997, the school attracted strong criticism from conservative groups. Cathie Adams, president of the Texas Eagle Forum said the schools leaders should have a responsibility to steer young people away from homosexuality. "At the real heart of this is that some people believe that homosexuals are born," Adams told the Chronicle. "I disagree with that. I think it's a behavior, like one child might have a behavior where he's prone to tantrums."
With those blunt words, National Education Association President Bob Chase reminded educators that they face "legal liability" when they do not protect sexual minority students.
"Having someone like Bob Chase take such a strong stance should send a clear and potent message to all schools that their sexual minority students are entitled to protection," said Sharon Miken, co-chair with Jim Testerman of the NEA Gay and Lesbian Caucus.
Chase noted the landmark decision on behalf of Jamie Nabozny and the "historic civil rights agreement" between the Department of Education and the Fayetteville school district.
Article by Gary Hopkins
Copyright © 2006 Education World