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May/June 2007

GLBT Student Safety — Five Years of Advocating for Gay/ Straight Alliances
By David Surface
Social Work Today
Vol. 7 No. 3 P. 28

Have gay/straight alliances helped make schools safer and more secure for GLBT students?

It’s no secret that high school can be a place of intense social pressure, particularly for students who do not fit “the norm.” Perhaps no group faces more pressure and outright prejudice than gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) youths. Studies such as Human Rights Watch’s “Hatred in the Hallways” and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s “National Anti-Gay/Lesbian Victimization Report” describe in alarming detail the extent of harassment endured by GLBT students—and, perhaps even more alarming, the failure of many school administrators to deal with this harassment and provide a safe environment for all students.

Into the void created by the inaction of school administrators stepped the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) with its Making Schools Safe program. Initiated by the ACLU’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, the Making Schools Safe program was intended to promote school safety, prevent harassment of GLBT students, and provide advocacy and technical assistance for students wishing to form gay/straight alliances (GSAs). Social Work Today took note of this important development in two articles: “Making Schools Safe for GLBT Students” (Vol. 1, No. 9, p. 20) and “Protecting GLBT Youth: The Role of Social Workers in Schools” (Vol. 2, No. 12, p. 20).

In the five years since that last article, what have the people behind the ACLU’s Making Schools Safe program learned? How successful have organizations, such as the ACLU and the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN), been in fostering the formation of GSAs in high schools across the United States? What are the most frequent obstacles that prevent students from forming a GSA? Are the pressures that work against the successful formation of GSAs all external, or do they come from the inside as well? Are GSAs most likely to succeed when they form quietly and out of the glare of public attention, or is there anything to be gained from being in the spotlight? How can these programs change their approach to adapt to the evolving relationship between the gay and straight segments of society? And finally, what role can social workers play in this ongoing process?

Making Contact
Chris Hampton works on the front lines of the ACLU’s effort to help GLBT students. As public education associate of the ACLU’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and AIDS Project, Hampton responds to requests for information or assistance from students and parents dealing with antigay harassment in schools.

Requests are received mostly through e-mail or from an online form. “We hear from students who say, ‘I get beat up in school every day,’ or ‘I asked my principal about starting a GSA, and he said I couldn’t.’ I’m the one who gets those messages and responds.”

Follow-up usually involves getting the students on the phone for more information about their situation. Hampton informs students of their legal rights. “If it sounds like something we might be able to help with, I get the information and take it to one of our attorneys,” explains Hampton. “We might actually get involved and negotiate with the school. It usually doesn’t escalate to the point of a lawsuit. We decide stage by stage what we’re going to do next.”

The majority of inquiries and requests come from students and parents and almost never from school administrators. “Sometimes, we have schools that are more willing to talk with us about what’s going on,” says Hampton. “We would love it if more schools would contact us and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got this situation going on. What are our obligations under the law?’”

Still, sometimes, school staff will occasionally reach out. “We do sometimes hear from teachers or club sponsors,” says Hampton. “It’s rare for a school principal to call. Of course, we do have a lot of information on our Web site, and it’s not always possible to know who’s looking at that.”

Why don’t more top school administrators reach out to the ACLU for help in preventing antigay harassment and the legal consequences that can follow?

“I think schools probably feel like they have an adversarial relationship with us because they know that we do end up suing schools quite a bit,” admits Hampton. “But a lot of what we do ends up getting results before we ever get to the lawsuit stage.”

The message Hampton wants to communicate to school administrators is that the ACLU is a resource not only for students and student groups but also for school administration. “We’ve come in on the side of schools quite a bit,” says Hampton. “We advise and support them when they’ve tried to implement antiharassment policies. We would love to help more schools out in that way.”

The Subtle Approach
Because of the perceived adversarial relationship between schools and the ACLU and the potential for controversy involved in raising the issue of GSAs in schools, one thing that the people involved in the Making Schools Safe program have learned over the past five years is the value of the subtle approach.

“Sometimes we do things very quietly,” says Hampton. “Not everything we do ends up getting publicity.”

Hampton initially relies on the student contact to help evaluate the situation at a particular school to decide on the most effective course of action. “Sometimes we decide with the student that it might be better to do this more quietly, negotiate with the school, and not turn this into a big public thing,” says Hampton. “That student is going to know a lot more than I do about what things are like at his or her school. A student might say, ‘Hmm, I think my principal would probably not handle it well if he heard from you,’ or ‘Let me try giving him this information off of your Web site first.’ We work with the student to figure out what might work best.”

Publicity: Pros and Cons
While experts agree it’s best to work behind the scenes to help quietly form a GSA without generating unwanted attention, a subtle approach can be difficult or impossible when some kind of public incident or controversy brings the topic into the public eye.

Once stories about gay students and GSAs appear in local media, the ACLU works hard to make sure the students’ side of the story is told. Hampton is particularly concerned that the legal facts be made public.

Hampton points out that even in controversial public cases, a little publicity is not always a bad thing. “We do like to publicize our school work sometimes because we think it’s helpful for these stories to get out,” Hampton says. “Students elsewhere might see it in the newspaper, and it makes them realize, ‘Oh, what my principal is doing is illegal.’ Or an educator might see the story and think, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t tell the students they can’t form a GSA because of the Federal Equal Access Act.’”

Another advocate for GLBT youths, Daryl Presgraves, media relations associate of GLSEN, also believes even the most unpleasant kind of publicity can ultimately have a positive effect on the formation of GSAs in schools. “When students or educators realize there’s a big problem on campus with bullying or harassment that may turn into violence, positive interventions, including GSAs, are a good thing,” says Presgraves.

Presgraves points out that one of the big growth surges in GSAs occurred after the murder of Matthew Shepherd. “It seems that schools are more open to addressing these problems once they appear in front of them.”

The Birth of a GSA
School social workers often play an important role in helping students form GSAs. One such social worker is Donna Secor, MSW, LMSW, school social worker and executive committee member of the School Social Work Association of America.

Secor had made efforts to reach out to GLBT students in her Ann Arbor, MI, high school but with little success. “I had a pink triangle and various symbols in my office for years, and it didn’t seem to be getting anywhere in terms of involvement with students who were harassed or who might be struggling with their sexual orientation,” says Secor. “So I was intrigued with forming a GSA. It seemed like a good way to reach this population.”

According to Secor, the high school needed a GSA, not because of any specific incident, but because of a general atmosphere of insensitivity. “We don’t believe there was a lot of physical harassment,” says Secor. “But there was a lot of insensitivity, a lot of use of the phrase ‘That’s so gay,’ the kind of discrimination where there’s the assumption that everyone is straight so we don’t have to worry about offending people.”

Still, Secor realized that she couldn’t initiate the formation of a GSA; she had to wait for a student to come forward. Finally, one did. “We had a ninth grade student come forward and say, ‘I want to start a gay/straight alliance,’” Secor recalls. “People knew I had this interest, and he was referred to me. We told him he’d need to have some other supporters or friends, which he managed to gather, and we went from there.”

Before proceeding, Secor made sure the young man understood the ramifications of his choice. “As a social worker, I try to caution them,” says Secor. “This particular student was a courageous young man. He was out and open. Most of the other students were not.”

Facing the Opposition
A number of parents who objected to the existence of a GSA formed a group. “I don’t remember the acronym they used,” says Secor. “The group made a number of objections; first, that observing the Day of Silence might disrupt the educational process, and that announcements of the GSA’s meetings might be offensive to middle school students who would hear them. The group went before the school board with their objections and threatened legal action. Our attorney researched the legal foundation for having a GSA, which was very straightforward and clear,” says Secor.

Ultimately, it was the school board itself that helped Secor and the students defeat the objections of the parent group by having each member go public with their vote of support for the GSA. The district superintendent also voiced his support. “So, fortunately, the parent group saw very early that there was no member to whom they could appeal,” says Secor.

Everyone has heard dramatic stories of angry, confrontational battles between gay student groups and hostile, prejudiced parents and school officials. While these stories may make good copy for journalists and subjects for TV movies, the real story of GSAs in schools is often much less dramatic.

“The overwhelming majority of gay/straight alliances form without any problem,” says Presgraves. “The pocket incidents you have are very, very isolated. Certainly, when GSAs start, schools may wonder or question until they do their research and find that these clubs are not what their opponents say they are. They realize that these clubs are here to improve the school climate and teach respect and tolerance, and most schools realize that’s a wonderful thing to do.”

What’s Behind the Resistance?
When principals and other school officials oppose the formation of GSAs, their motivation is often not so much outright prejudice as the desire to avoid controversy.

“Sometimes principals want to do the right thing, but they feel so much pressure from local folks that they will either try to find some way around the law or will take action without being fully informed about what the law requires them to do,” says Hampton. “A lot of school administrators are either ignorant of the law or a lot of them just bank on students not questioning their authority and just assume they can set their own rules without any regard for the law. We want to make sure they understand what their legal obligations are.”

While timid school officials may act to avoid controversy, Presgraves points out that this tactic often backfires. “What these principals don’t realize is that by preventing a club from starting, they’re creating more controversy in the process,” says Presgraves. “The overwhelming majority of educators want what’s best for their students. What principals find out when they do their research is that these clubs don’t create problems; they solve them.”

Avoiding Polarization
Secor and the GSA students worked hard not to polarize the school community. They met without public announcement for a few months, then carefully made their announcement to the school faculty and proceeded slowly. They didn’t observe the Day of Silence the first year but did the second year.

Not every high school GSA is so skilled at avoiding polarization. Secor describes how a division developed between different factions of the faculty at another high school in her area where a GSA was being formed. “Some teachers put up pink triangles; others didn’t,” Secor explains. “Some people said that if a gay student was in one of those classrooms where the teacher didn’t put up a pink triangle, they might feel it was a hostile environment.”

There were other incidents, too. On the Day of Silence, GSA students made a show of lining up in front of the school, provoking negative reactions from other students. “Some students wore Straight Loud and Proud T-shirts to voice their opposition,” says Secor. “We try to avoid that kind of thing, but sometimes you just can’t.”

Doing the Right Thing
Presgraves points out that the expectation of opposition can itself become a formidable obstacle. “First, don’t assume you’re going to meet resistance,” says Presgraves. “Don’t assume, ‘They’re not going to let me have this club, so I’m going to protest.’ Always go through the proper process first. We’ve had students who thought they had no chance of getting a club, and the administration said, ‘OK, sure.’ Our concern is that students won’t even try.”

While there seem to be certain areas of the United States where opposition to GSAs is more prevalent, again, the real situation is often not black and white. “In the most conservative areas, there are good educators who realize that GSAs improve school climate,” says Presgraves. “Sure, there are a lot of GSAs in what you’d call more liberal areas, but they exist everywhere, even in very conservative areas, and have thrived there.”

Why GSAs Break Down
One of the greatest difficulties in establishing a GSA can be in finding a faculty advisor. Some teachers who are sympathetic to the students’ cause may worry that other people will believe they are gay if they act as an advisor to a gay student group. “I was turned down on that basis by several staff members when I tried to come up with coadvisors,” says Secor.

“We often have situations in which a bunch of students are really motivated and committed and really want to have a GSA, but they can’t find a faculty sponsor because faculty is afraid of what will happen to them,” says Hampton. “Our affiliate has been talking to people in Mississippi, the only state in the country that doesn’t have a GSA. There are students at a couple schools who want to start GSAs, but they can’t get a sponsor. There are also a group of students in Illinois who are really struggling to find a sponsor.”

In some rare cases, GSAs will find sponsors who are tenured teachers, ones who are more secure in their position and less anxious about lending their support. However, this doesn’t happen as often as Hampton would like. “I wish more teachers would be willing to serve as GSA sponsors,” says Hampton. “But that’s difficult at some schools.”

Sometimes GSAs never fully form because, for one reason or another, the students themselves can’t sustain their commitment. “Sometimes we’ll have a situation where there aren’t enough kids who’re willing to come forward and be involved,” says Hampton. “We have to have at least one kid who’s willing to have us represent them, and if they’re minors, we have to have their parents’ permission. And even when students may very well want the GSA, maybe they’re not out, or maybe they’re not out to their parents, or maybe their parents aren’t supportive, in which case they really need a GSA.”

The Measure of Success
So how do groups such the ACLU and GLSEN measure the success of their programs? How difficult is it to gauge the effect they’re having on the formation of GSAs in our nation’s schools? Is there one standard measure of success, or is it more complicated?

According to Hampton, one way, for example, is the difficulty following-up on every contact. Frequently, Hampton will hear from a student, send information, and then never hear from the student again. She recalls one particular instance that turned out better than she’d expected.

“We had one case in Texas a year and a half ago where we did a demand letter to the school and didn’t hear anything back,” says Hampton. “Then about six weeks later, the kids told us, ‘Yeah, they’ve been letting us meet for a month.’ And we thought, ‘Why didn’t you tell us?’ We’d been thinking there was this horrible, tense situation, and the school had pretty much immediately given them the OK to start meeting. And the kids didn’t think to tell us.”

Asked if this was a case of no news is good news, Hampton laughs, “Usually, in this kind of work, no news is bad news. I think that’s the nature of working with high school kids.”
Presgraves says that GLSEN measures the success of their program by the number of GSAs registered with them. At the end of 2001, there were fewer than 1,000 GSAs registered with GLSEN; today, there are more than 3,000 registered GSAs. “Over a five-year span, there’s either been a big uptake in GSAs or a big uptake in GSAs finding out about us and registering,” says Presgraves. “Probably a little bit of both. We do know there have been a lot of GSAs started over the last five years.”

Improving and Adapting
Has the ACLU changed its approach based on what it’s experienced helping GSAs? Hampton cites the importance of staying attuned to little changes in the challenges faced by GLBT students. “A lot of what we do is about gauging what seems to be happening and trying to generate more materials to be able to respond more quickly and give them things that they can print and show to their principal,” says Hampton. “Year before last, it seems that we were getting a lot more complaints about censorship—stuff like, ‘You can’t wear that gay rights T-shirt.’ So, we created some new handouts that addressed that.”

GLSEN has learned the importance of reaching out and forming partnerships with organizations such as the Christian Educators Association International and the First Amendment Center. “Not what you’d think of as traditional partnerships for an organization like ours,” says Presgraves. “We’ve realized it’s important for people to come together.”

What kind of changes would Hampton like to see in the future? “I’d like to see more states pass laws against harassment in schools,” says Hampton. “It’s key that states take matters into their own hands.”

The Role of Social Workers
With principals anxious about creating public controversy and teachers fearful of putting their jobs at risk, school social workers are often GLBT students’ last, best hope for an advocate in the difficult process of starting a GSA.

“Social workers have an important role to play in the formation of GSAs,” says Presgraves. “They can be advocates for students they see being bullied or harassed. If the students are struggling to find an advisor to help them set up a GSA, I’d say that social workers, more than anyone, would be highly skilled in this capacity to teach others about respect and tolerance.”

“The GSA has had an impact on the whole student body just by its existence,” says Secor. “I believe there’s some research that says the existence of the group raises awareness of the issue, so that’s been very positive. It’s improved the school climate. I’ve done a fair amount of things in my career, but this may be the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done.”

— David Surface is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn, NY. He is a frequent contributor to Social Work Today.