EdNews Parent attended part of a civic identity and safe schools symposium last week sponsored by the Matthew Shepard Foundation and an organization called Facing History and Ourselves. Here are some highlights from the event, held at Johnson & Wales University:

One Colorado fights bullying of LGBT students

Erin Yourtz, safe schools coordinator for One Colorado, a group advocating equal rights for people regardless of sexual orientation, talked about the anti-bullying legislation now being discussed in Denver. Yourtz said legislation to stop bullying is key, but that the first version will likely not fly because it is packed with too many mandates and no money for districts to implement it.

Acording to One Colorado, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth face special challenges growing up and coming out. A 2009 National School Climate Survey conducted by GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, found that nearly nine of 10 LGBT students were victims of harassment within the last school year. More than four in 10 LGBT students reported being physically harassed because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation.

Students who stand up to hate – often straight-identified allies – are also victims of harassment, as they can be perceived as LGBT. According to GLSEN, three in 10 LGBT students reported missing a class – or even a whole day of school – because they felt unsafe. Students who were frequently harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity reported grade point averages that were nearly half a grade lower than students who were less frequently harassed. LGBT youth are more likely to turn to substances, face depression, run away from home – and even commit suicide. (Read this EdNews Parent story).

Yourtz said to be effective, an anti-bullying bill needs to have very specific language. For instance, it needs to spell out that it’s wrong to say “that’s gay” or call someone a faggot.

She said parents and advocates should track the legislation (see video above), push their school to conduct annual climate surveys and be persistent about sharing the findings and addressing problem areas. She also said parents should demand that school board members and the superintendent “model inclusive and welcoming behavior thoughout the district.”

Yourtz said school officials and politicians are often reluctant to highlight LGBT issues because they can spark controversy. She said the focus needs to continue to shift toward bullying prevention vs. response. She said the societal effects of bullying are bad for everyone, including the bullies. She noted that schoolyard bullies are more likely to end up in jail than students who don’t bully.

Betty DeGeneres, more than a famous comedian’s mother

Betty DeGeneres, who shares the same dry wit as her daughter Ellen, became an activist and advocate for LGBT people after her famous daughter came out of the closet and watched her career nose dive. (It’s since Betty DeGeneresbeen resurrected). DeGeneres said she had known about her daughter’s sexual orientation for years, but played the same game as her daughter and hid it from the public. Ellen “came out” when she was 20 on a family trip to Mississippi. Mother and daughter were walking on the beach when Ellen began to cry, and said, “I’m gay.”

“I can definitely say I was not prepared for this. I had all these thoughts running through my head. I hugged her, and wondered how this “girl next door” daughter of mine was suddenly going to be the object of bigotry and discrimination.” She admitted that a sillier thought popped into her head: that her daughter and her chosen partner’s photos would not be in the local newspaper if they became engaged.

DeGeneres recalled meeting President Bill Clinton and how she embraced his comment that all of America loses when any American is denied or forced out of a job due to his or her sexual orientation.

DeGeneres said she equates some of the rhetoric around gays today to puritanism or the Salem witch hunts. One educator in the audience said it’s common for staff and teachers in Colorado schools to be encouraged to keep their sexual orientation private. DeGeneres encouraged them to get the support they need and make sure their civil rights are being protected.

For parents dealing with a child coming out of the closet, she recommended  Family Acceptance and PFLAG.

Rachel’s Challenge

Most of you from Colorado already know the name Rachel Scott. She was the first casualty in the 1999Rachel Scott massacre at Columbine High School. She was shot in the chest as she ate lunch outside on a beautiful spring day with a friend. Since then, her family and their supporters created an organization to share Rachel’s remarkably mature code of ethics with the world. She often wrote in her journal about the importance of simple acts of kindness and how far they can spread.

Program presenter Sarah Branion shared some of Rachel’s writings, illuminating the teen’s belief that “compassion is the greatest form of love humans have to offer.” For parents and kids alike, Rachel’s challenge is one to embrace. Here are key pieces of it:

  • Eliminate the prejudice we all have toward people who are different. Rachel’s brother Craig was next to two friends in the library on that fateful day. Both were killed. One, Isaiah Shoels, was tormented in his final moments because of his race. Branion encouraged members of the audience to give people three chances before passing judgment. Look people in the eyes, and look for the best in them.
  • Dare to dream. Write down your dreams and goals. Keep a journal by your bed. Write a little bit every day and remember what makes you tick and gives meaning to your life.
  • Choose positive influences. Rachel made it her mission to reach out to people who might be struggling – new kids at school, students with special needs, kids who were being bullied. They will always remember her for reaching out when no one else would.

Since the founding of Rachel’s Challenge, the organization reports that it has given presentations at thousands of primary and secondary schools, along with much bigger events, in 50 states and six countries reaching 11 million people.

The Rachel’s Challenge website reports that the educational program has averted seven school shootings or acts of violence and stopped hundreds of suicides. Of course, it is impossible to verify these claims, but it’s hard to argue with the message.